Anti-terrorism row flares in German government

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BERLIN, Sep 21 (Reuters) German Chancellor Angela Merkel intervened today to try to calm a row over anti-terrorism strategy that has put a severe strain on relations between partners in her two-year-old ''grand coalition''.

Merkel, a conservative, hastily arranged a meeting with senior members of her centre-left Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners a day after her interior minister was criticised in parliament by the SPD for warning of the dangers of a nuclear attack by militants.

While the row is not seen as an immediate threat to coalition stability, it has underscored just how tense relations have become within Merkel's government ahead of key regional elections next year.

''The three had a very intense discussion,'' government spokesman Thomas Steg told a news conference, referring to the meeting between Merkel, SPD leader Kurt Beck and SPD Vice Chancellor Franz Muentefering.

Volker Kauder, parliamentary leader of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), said the relationship in the coalition had seriously deteriorated.

''Our coalition partner is acting in an unacceptable way,'' Volker Kauder told N24 television. ''We simply cannot work like this.'' Hajo Funke, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, described the situation as ''critical'' but said he thought Merkel would prevent the row from tearing apart her governing partnership.

The intense debate over security strategy comes two weeks after German authorities said they had foiled massive bomb attacks by a cell of Islamist militants.

REGIONAL ELECTIONS Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble set off a storm when he warned in a weekend newspaper interview that Germany was in the ''crosshairs'' of Islamist terrorism.

''Many experts are convinced (a nuclear) attack is a question of when, not if,'' he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

Schaeuble defended his remarks in parliament yesterday, but was denounced by members of the SPD in personal attacks that were among the sharpest since Merkel's coalition was formed in November 2005.

Klaus Uwe Benneter, a former general secretary of the SPD, called the warnings ''crazy'' and ''absurd''.

The public bashing prompted Kauder to storm out of the parliamentary chamber in disgust.

Security strategy is shaping up as one of the most contentious issues in the government ahead of state elections in Lower Saxony, Hesse, Hamburg and Bavaria next year.

While Merkel's conservatives are urging stricter rules to combat terrorism, the SPD has repeatedly warned against introducing tough policies they say would hurt civil rights.

Polls show citizens are increasingly worried about the possibility of an attack, but there is resistance to stronger security measures in Germany, a country where memories of the Nazis and the East German Stasi secret police are still alive.

REUTERS GT RK2120

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