German parliament agrees to extend Afghan mission

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BERLIN, Oct 12 (Reuters) Germany's parliament voted today to renew the deployment of its troops in Afghanistan for another year, defying public opinion which is strongly against the mission.

The Bundestag (lower house) agreed to extend the mandate for up to 3,500 German troops to participate in NATO's 40,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and for the deployment of six Tornado reconnaissance jets.

The mandate is controversial in Germany, which has only gradually expanded its role in overseas military missions since World War Two.

The deaths of 26 German soldiers in Afghanistan have further eroded public support and an OmniQuest poll for the Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper showed only 29 per cent of Germans backed the extension.

However, final figures showed 453 deputies voted for the extension with just 79 against and 48 abstentions.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, said Germany was committed to helping Afghanistan.

''If we give up, the opponents of the civilised world have won. We don't want to let that happen. We will stand by the people of Afghanistan and help them to continue along the mapped-out path,'' he told parliament.

Many Social Democrats, partners in conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition, are uneasy about the mission but no major revolt against the party's leadership, which backs the mission, transpired.

Only 13 Social Democrats voted against the extension with another 13 abstaining compared to 187 in favour. The bulk of the ''No'' votes were from the Left Party.

German troops are based mainly in Kabul and the north.

Berlin has held out against NATO demands to help efforts to train Afghanistan's national army in the more dangerous south where NATO forces are fighting a fierce Taliban insurgency.

But NATO is facing a tough fight. The number of Taliban suicide attacks in Afghanistan -- more than 100 so far this year -- is set to top last year's record of 123, the United Nations says.

And some other countries, notably the Netherlands and Canada, are under growing domestic pressure to scale down their troop presence or announce when they will pull out.

Only this week, Taliban rebels freed a German hostage who spent nearly three months in captivity. The kidnappers had shot dead another German abducted with him. The Taliban had demanded Germany withdraw its troops from Afghanistan but Berlin refused.

Parliament will vote next month on renewing an even more unpopular mission which allows Germany to send up to 100 special forces to take part in anti-terrorism operations. A greater number of Social Democrats oppose that force.

REUTERS PD BST1818

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