BERLIN, Oct 26: Newspaper pictures purporting to show German soldiers desecrating a human skull in Afghanistan caused outrage in Germany and prompted the government to launch an immediate investigation.
A photograph of a smiling soldier in fatigues posing with a skull was splashed on the front page of top-selling German daily Bild under the headline: ''Shock photos of German troops''.
Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung told ZDF television six suspects had been identified in conjunction with the probe -- four of them former soldiers, and two who were still serving.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said the pictures were repulsive.
''Such behaviour is inexcusable,'' she said on the sidelines of a defence event in Berlin. ''The government will investigate the soldiers involved and take rigorous steps against them.'' The images were apparently taken more than three years ago.
They were published as the German army seeks to expand its global role nearly 60 years after World War Two.
Other photographs showed an unidentified soldier clutching the skull next to his exposed penis and the skull resting on the front wing of a light armoured vehicle. Bild said the soldiers were on a routine tour around the Afghan capital Kabul.
State prosecutors in Potsdam said they had launched a probe into a possible case of desecrating the dead.
Defence Minister Jung told a news conference at which a new long-term security strategy for Germany was presented that the pictures aroused ''disgust and horror''.
His sentiments were echoed by Afghan Economy Minister Amin Farhang in the online version of German magazine Der Spiegel.
''The whole country is shocked by these photos,'' he told the magazine. ''Morally, this act must be utterly condemned.'' The photos were published more than two years after images emerged showing US soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq, a revelation which severely damaged the US army's reputation.
THOROUGH INVESTIGATION US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, visiting Berlin, called for a thorough investigation.
''Sometimes things happen which are not supposed to. We condemn that,'' he told Handelsblatt newspaper. Gonzales has faced criticism for his role in shaping US policies blamed for contributing to the torture of terrorism suspects.
Some 3,000 German soldiers are in Afghanistan, mainly in the north and Kabul, as part of NATO's peacekeeping forces. Jung's review, the first since 1994, sets out a vision for Germany's military as an intervention and anti-terrorism force.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the practices in the photos did not reflect the behaviour of its troops.
''This, of course, is not representative'' of NATO or the German armed forces, Scheffer said after meeting Jung in Berlin.
''Luckily these are the exceptions.'' Germany's soldiers' union said the images put troops' safety at risk. ''We should expect the Taliban and al Qaeda to use the photos and say 'this is what Germans do to our dead','' Bernhard Gertz, the head of the union, told Reuters.
Bild did not say how it knew the photos were genuine or how it obtained them. It quoted an unidentified army member as saying they were taken in the spring of 2003 and that the skull may have come from a mass grave.
Seven years after engaging in its first combat operations since the war, Germany has some 9,000 soldiers in hotspots such as the Balkans, Afghanistan, Congo and off the Lebanese coast.