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World

Merkel cuts short Afghanistan troop visit

After meeting German troops in Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif, Chancellor Angela Merkel had planned to visit a third base in Feyzabad on Tuesday, but heavy cloud in the mountainous region made the helicopter flight too risky.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, is seen sitting between German army Bundeswehr soldiers during her flight from Kunduz to Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, on Monday April 6, 2009

Poor weather prevented Chancellor Merkel from flying to the German base at Feyzabad

The decision means Merkel embarked on their return flight to Germany a number of hours earlier than planned.

Merkel's two-day schedule, which was kept secret for security reasons, allowed her to discuss reconstruction projects and visit some of the 3,800 German soldiers deployed as part of the 60,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

The first stop on the itinerary was Kunduz, where Merkel and Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung received a preliminary security briefing on Monday.

Following presentations on the work conducted by the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kunduz, Merkel flew roughly 150 kilometers west to another German base at Mazar-e-Sharif.

Rocket attack

A view of Camp Feyzabad from a Bundeswehr helicopter

German bases in Afghanistan are often targeted in rocket attacks

Just 20 minutes after her helicopter left Kunduz, militants fired two rockets at the German base.

The missiles landed outside the perimeter fence and caused neither casualties nor damage.

A statement released by the Taliban said its fighters launched the attack because knew the chancellor was in the camp, but Bundeswehr officials in Afghanistan have described the claim as "ridiculous".

Militants have conducted similar attacks against the German base in Kunduz on nine occasions this year, but have failed to cause any casualties.

NATO boost

Merkel's Afghanistan visit came just days after NATO leaders agreed to alter their strategy there to boost reconstruction efforts while maintaining combat operations against Taliban militants.

While US President Barack Obama called on the alliance to commit more funding and troops to Afghanistan, Merkel confirmed that Berlin would deploy an additional 600 soldiers to help secure presidential elections in August.

The decision was actually reached last autumn, when Germany's lower house of parliament approved a bill raising the maximum number of Bundeswehr troops that can be sent to Afghanistan to 4,500.

Unpopular mission

German Chancellor Angela Merkel watches Afghan police cadets train in Mazar-e-Sharif

Merkel says Germany must help Afghan forces defend themselves

Despite Obama's praise for Germany's commitment to NATO and Afghanistan, Merkel appears reluctant to further increase the number of German troops deployed with ISAF.

The NATO-led mission, which has seen 30 Bundeswehr soldiers killed to date, is highly unpopular among German voters, and Merkel is facing a federal election in September.

"At the moment I don't see any need to expand our commitment here," she told German public broadcaster ZDF during an interview in Mazar-i-Sharif on Monday.

"We're here to help Afghanistan defend itself." she said, referring to German efforts to train Afghan police officers and soldiers.

Kabul snub?

Unlike the chancellor's last trip to Afghanistan in 2007, Merkel's schedule did not include any meetings with Afghan officials in the capital Kabul.

She did, however, call Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday for talks on bilateral ties.

The president's office says the chancellor raised concerns about a new law covering the nation's Shiite minority, which critics say oppresses women.

Karzai has ordered a review of the law, which he signed last month, amid claims that it bans women from working or receiving an education without the permission of their husbands.

The Afghan government has confirmed that the law is not in force and stressed it would be altered if a review found it contradicted women's rights.


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