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Merkel warns NATO against divisive Afghan debate

Written by: Staff
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BERLIN, Nov 22 (Reuters) Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed today to keep German peacekeepers in northern Afghanistan and resist attempts to transfer them to the more violent south.

With roughly 2,900 troops in Afghanistan, Germany is one of the largest contributors to a peacekeeping force in place since shortly after the 2001 US- and British-led invasion to oust the radical Taliban regime.

Merkel has come under increasing pressure from the United States and NATO to move German soldiers from the north to the south where Taliban fighters are staging a violent insurgency.

The German mandate as agreed by parliament stipulates that its troops be stationed in the north and help out in the south only on an ad-hoc emergency basis.

''The German army will continue to assume its responsibilities under its current mandate, but I can envision no additional military responsibilities that go beyond the current mandate and I'd like to make that clear right here,'' Merkel said in a speech to parliament.

''As far as I'm concerned, the theme of Afghanistan is too important to be reduced to a north-south debate at the NATO summit in Riga.'' US officials said on Tuesday that President George W Bush planned to urge NATO members at the November. 28-29 summit in the Latvian capital to send more troops and remove restrictions on soldiers already there.

German resistance to shifting troops to the south has upset the Americans, British and Canadians, who are concerned their soldiers are doing most of the fighting.

NATO has said it does not have enough forces to secure victory and is seeking 1,500 additional soldiers.

Since coming into office one year ago, Merkel has agreed to send German troops to Congo and Lebanon. Both missions were unpopular in Germany, a country which is only slowly coming to grips with its increasing role in foreign combat missions 60 years after the devastation of World War Two and the Nazis.

Merkel described the German mission in the north as ''important and dangerous'' and told parliament that German troops had trained 17,000 Afghan police and were committed to bringing their deployment to a successful conclusion.

She said she would stress at the Riga summit the need to focus the NATO mission in Afghanistan on civil as well as military tasks.

REUTERS LL RK1634

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