Six German reconnaissance Tornados recently deployed to Afghanistan were placed under NATO command on Monday while peace activists protested the deployment in traditional Easter peace marches throughout Germany.
German Tornados will be patrolling the Afghan airspace under NATO command
"At midnight the operational squadron with the six recce Tornados and their additional personnel deployed here were placed under NATO command," spokesman Hartmut Beilmann told Deutsche Presse-Agentur on Monday.
Two of the aircraft had undertaken a 90-minute acclimatization flight on Monday, Beilmann said, speaking from Camp Marmal near Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan, where the squadron is based.
"The jets will cover 90 percent of the Afghan airspace," Beilmann said.
The exact area of coverage will be determined by NATO. The aircraft, which carry two hi-tech optical cameras each plus an infra-red sensor, are to begin full operations in mid-April after arriving at the German base on Thursday.
Some 200 air force personnel are stationed at Camp Marmal where half the 3,000-strong German military contingent in Afghanistan is based.
A controversial mission
German peace activists have been opposing their country's mission in Afghanistan
The aircraft are to relay coordinates for potential bombing targets to ground troops of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) battling remnants of the ousted Taliban in the southern provinces.
The mission is controversial at home. A recent survey showed 74 percent feared it could trigger terrorist attacks in Germany.
Most of the German troops in Afghanistan are engaged in infrastructure projects with mixed military and civilian provincial reconstruction teams in the relatively peaceful north of the country.
NATO-led forces recently launched an offensive against the Taliban, which claims to have thousands of suicide bombers across Afghanistan.
Peace marches at home
Meanwhile, peace activists held traditional peace marches throughout Germany over the Easter weekend, but the numbers attending were well down from the movement's heyday some 25 years ago.
Some 2,000 people took part in the 2007 Frankfurt Easter march
The marchers called for an end to the deployment of German troops abroad, including the reconstruction mission in northern Afghanistan and, in particular, the deployment of the Tornados.
The organizers of the marches said tens of thousands had participated in events in around 80 towns and cities across the country throughout the Easter weekend.
The main rallies on Monday were held in Frankfurt and Hamburg, where up to 2,000 gathered in each city.
The largest rally of the weekend occurred on Sunday at Fretzdorf, north of Berlin, where police put the total at 3,000, while organizers said 10,000 had taken part.
The movement opposes plans by the Defense Ministry to reopen an military exercise zone there for low-flying jets that was used by Soviet forces during the communist era.
Prominent members of the local Social Democrats took part in the Fretzdorf rally.
Claudia Roth, left, of the Green party has distanced herself from the peace marches
Leaders of Germany's Green party, traditionally strong supporters of the marches, had distanced themselves from the organizers, accusing them of focusing exclusively on anti-militarism.
Greens chairwoman Claudia Roth referred to a "monochrome viewpoint" and "blanket rejection of the military," and many prominent Greens stayed away.
Germany's Easter marches gained their inspiration from Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament of the 1950s. In 1968, when protest against the Vietnam War was at its height, an estimated 300,000 marched.
The all-time high was reached in 1983, when 700,000 marched through West German cities in protest at the stationing of medium- range nuclear weapons in Europe.