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Westerwelle visits German troops in Afghanistan at close of trip

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has paid a surprise visit to German troops in the north of Afghanistan on Monday, a day after saying Germany would continue to support the country once it withdraws its troops.

Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasoul, right, with German counterpart Guido Westerwelle

Westerwelle, left, pledged his support to Afghanistan

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle paid a visit to German troops in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz on Monday at the close of a two-day visit to the country.

Westerwelle's travel plans to Afghanistan - his first trip to the country since taking up his post over a year ago - had remained highly secretive due to security concerns.

The leader of the Free Democrats (FDP) laid a wreath for fallen German soldiers, and was also expected to hold talks with the new Kunduz governor, who assumed office following the killing of his predecessor late last year.

The drop in on Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, comes after at meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on Sunday, where Westerwelle pledged Germany's long-term support to the country even after security responsibilities are handed over to local forces in 2014.

Westerwelle, having arrived in Afghanistan following a trip to Pakistan on Saturday, told Karzai that Germany "will continue providing support to strengthen the Afghan national security forces" and "would not leave [the country] alone" after 2014, according to a statement from Karzai's office.

Westerwelle also said Germany "supports Karzai's peace initiative with the Taliban."

The foreign minister also held talks with Afghan Foreign Minister Salmai Rassul and National Security Adviser Rangeen Dadfar Spanta. He was also due to meet with General David Petraeus, commander of the international forces in Afghanistan, before ending his visit on Monday.

Forty-five German troops have died in the nine-year conflict in Afghanistan, which Chancellor Angela Merkel described as "war" during a visit with troops in December.

2011 a 'critical year'

Bundeswehr soldiers in Afghanistan

Germany has around 4,600 troops stationed in Afghanistan

Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, will decide later this month on whether to extend the mandate for its troops participating in the NATO mission, a decision it must renew annually for any military missions abroad.

According to Focus magazine, Merkel's ruling coalition, composed of the Christian Democratic Union, sister party Christian Social Union and the FDP, have come to an agreement on extending the mandate.

The Social Democrats are also said to be ready to vote for the renewal, but only if the beginning of the withdrawal is firmly set for this year.

Germany currently has around 4,600 troops stationed in Afghanistan, the third-largest group after the United States and the United Kingdom.

Calling 2011 a "critical year" for Afghanistan, Westerwelle said he expected the mandate "to be carried by a very large majority" despite waning public support at home.

Meeting with his Afghan counterpart, Westerwelle also signed an agreement to forgive Afghanistan of $17 million (13 million euros) of debt.

The foreign minister said the decision was made to "contribute to economic and political stabilization in the country."

Author: Darren Mara, Martin Kuebler (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Kyle James

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