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Middle East

Berlin defends abstention on Libya action, considers alternative aid

Germany was the only European country to abstain from the UN Security Council vote on a no-fly zone over Libya. The foreign minister said it was not an easy decision, and that he understood the alternative stance.

Guido Westerwelle giving a speech

Westerwelle told parliament abstaining was a tough decision

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Friday defended Germany's decision not to support its European neighbors and closest NATO allies in a UN Security Council vote on imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.

"We understand those who have decided with honorable motives to support an international military intervention in Libya," Westerwelle said. "However, after considering the risks, we reached the conclusion that we did not want German soldiers to participate in a war, in a military intervention, in Libya."

Westerwelle also said there was no such thing as a "surgical intervention," and that any military operation would inevitably lead to civilian casualties.

Germany was one of five abstentions in the 15-member ballot, along with Russia, China, Brazil and India. Westerwelle also said the decision had been a difficult one to make, and reiterated Germany's call for tougher sanctions against Libya and for Moammar Gadhafi to immediately step down as leader.

Alternative aid for allies

Reports from Berlin, quoting government sources, suggest Germany is seeking other ways to show that it wants to help its Western allies.

One possibility might be an increased German involvement in so-called AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aerial surveillance operations in Afghanistan, designed to free up other NATO planes to enforce the Libyan no-fly zone.

An AWACS plane at a NATO base in Geilenkirchen, western Germany

Germany might offer to lighten NATO's airborne load elsewhere

Several German news agencies have reported that Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere put the suggestion to their political allies at a coalition meeting on Friday.

Germany also has AWACS planes stationed in the Mediterranean, although the CDU's Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the foreign policy committee, said these units could not be used to enforce the Libyan no-fly zone without a mandate.

"NATO is in the planning stages now," Polenz said. "It's up to NATO to decide where German contributions are needed."

Opposition supportive

If the German decision is seen as controversial on a global stage, it has been unusually well received in Berlin. Amid an increasingly hostile political climate, ahead of crucial state elections, opposition leaders have voiced their support for the course of action taken by Merkel's coalition.

"I can certainly understand the position adopted by Westerwelle," SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel said, adding that military action against the Gadhafi regime might run the risk of escalating the violence.

"In the end, we all know that no-fly zones have to be enforced, and that that can be a difficult path," Green Party co-leader Renate Künast said.

Pacifist Germany

In the post-war era Germany has been a reluctant military actor. Not only was the country devastated twice in two world wars in a little over three decades, but both times it was widely considered the aggressor. Military intervention is strongly discouraged in almost any context in the constitution, the founding document of modern German democracy.

Afghan Soldiers stand guard by the burnt wreckage of a fuel tanker

An attack on this fuel tanker reminded Germany of the dangers of civilian casualites

NATO intervention in the Kosovo war in 1998 marked the first occasion that Germany contributed any meaningful contingent of troops to an international combat mission.

The second major example was the war in Afghanistan, shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States. Even then, Germany agreed to participate on what was officially designated a "peacekeeping and reconstruction" mandate mostly in the then relatively stable north of the country.

That mission proved unpopular with the German public, not least because the country's military role intensified as the Afghan insurgency spread and gathered momentum.

In 2009, the German public and politicians were reminded of the potential dangers of military action when a senior officer ordered a US bombing raid on a fuel tanker captured by the Taliban.

More than 100 civilians are believed to have died in the explosion, and the ensuing backlash ultimately led to the resignation of Franz Josef Jung, the defense minister at the time of the attack who had since taken up a new post as labor minister.

Author: Mark Hallam (AFP, dapd, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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