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Germany

Chancellor Merkel thanks troops on surprise visit to Afghanistan

Chancellor Angela Merkel has paid German soldiers serving in Afghanistan a surprise visit. But the chancellor's third trip to the country has been marked by sadness, with news of the death of a 21-year-old soldier.

Angela Merkel talks to a soldier on a bicycle

It's Merkel's first trip to Afghanistan since April 2009

Chancellor Angela Merkel flew into Afghanistan for a surprise visit early on Saturday, accompanied by Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Bundeswehr chief of staff Volker Wieker. For security reasons the chancellor's trip was kept secret ahead of her arrival.

At the German military camp in Kunduz, Merkel paid her respects at the memorial to the fallen, and the chancellor then talked to some soldiers about their mission.

"Until now, we only knew of stories like this from war books," Merkel said after listening to soldiers describing a heated four-day offensive against Taliban militants in the volatile Char Darah district last month. "The reason why I'm here is to say 'thank you.' We know what you are doing is an extremely dangerous undertaking."

Soldier's death casts pall

Shortly before Merkel arrived in Kunduz, a 21-year-old German soldier died in an emergency operation. Medical personnel were operating after the soldier was discovered with a severe gunshot wound at an outpost in Baghlan province. The details behind the incident are unclear, but a military spokesman at Bundeswehr headquarters in Potsdam said the man was not injured in a combat situation.

Merkel points into the distance while talking to a group of soldiers, Defense Minister Guttenberg is also in shot

Germany has now lost 45 soldiers in Afghanistan

In total, 45 German troops have now lost their lives in Afghanistan - 27 of them in combat. Eight German soldiers have been killed in the field in 2010, making it the bloodiest year of the Bundeswehr's mission to Afghanistan, where it is part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force.

The Afghan mission is becoming increasingly unpopular in Germany, with most opinion polls showing that the majority of people oppose the Bundeswehr's presence there. Opposition political parties are also ramping up pressure on Merkel's government to commit more firmly to their current plan to start gradually withdrawing soldiers starting at the end of 2011.

Withdrawal plans

However, the security situation on the ground - if anything - is deteriorating, as the nature of the chancellor's visit on Saturday showed.

On her last trip to Afghanistan in April 2009, Merkel visited the German bases in Kunduz and Masar-i-Sharif, and she also went to a field hospital and a police training center.

This time, Merkel is confined to barracks; having flown in with heavy security, she is not planning any trips beyond the confines of the Kunduz base because of security concerns.

Angela Merkel talks to an assembled group of at least six soldiers

This was a rare chance for Merkel to discuss the Afghan mission with the people executing it

As Merkel, Guttenberg and the rest of the government try to find a balance between meeting the demands of a war-weary populace and fulfilling their pledges in Afghanistan, military leaders have been calling on Western governments not to think in terms of "theoretical and inflexible timetables."

"If, as a firefighter, you were fighting a blaze in a high-rise building, you'd never say to yourself: 'OK, my shift finishes at 7 - whether it's still burning or not,'" ISAF spokesman Josef Blotz said in a recent interview with the dpa news agency. "And even once you've put the fire out, you'd station a guard at the site to make sure the flames don't rekindle."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle reiterated the plan to begin a troop withdrawal in 2011 in his address to parliament in Berlin on Thursday - in one of the government's clearest statements so far on the issue. However, defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg - who said nothing in those discussions - had advised against setting too many fixed dates for winding down the mission.

Guttenberg also travelled to Kunduz with Merkel on Saturday, days after his latest, somewhat controversial trip to the country. The defense minister went to the Kundus and Masar-i-Sharif bases on Monday, travelling with his wife and a television chat show host - a trip the opposition lambasted as a PR stunt. The defense minister has been to Afghanistan eight times since taking office last year.

Author: Mark Hallam (apn, dpa)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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