Merkel makes surprise visit to Afghanistan
BERLIN / LONDON - Agence France-Presse
In this photo released by Pressi Informationaamt der Bundesregierung, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, leaves a Transall airplane as she arrives in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, Monday, March 12, 2012. AP PhotoGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Afghanistan for a surprise visit today, with tensions running high a day after a US soldier went on a rampage, killing 16 villagers.
Merkel was to visit troops stationed in Masar-i-Sharif in the north of the country, a spokesman said in Berlin.
As her visit was announced, the Taliban vowed revenge against "sick-minded American savages" for the killing of 16 villagers including women and children in their homes in the province of Kandahar on Sunday.
The massacre in the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan added to roiling anti-Western sentiment in the war-ravaged country over the burning of the Koran at a US base in last month.
Germany, and several other NATO member states pulled their advisors from Afghan institutions after two members of the international force in Afghanistan were shot dead in violence over the Koran incident.
The Koran burning ignited days of violent anti-US protests in which some 40 people died, plunging relations between foreign forces and their Afghan allies to an all-time low.
Sunday's killing spree came as the United States and Afghanistan pursue difficult talks on securing a strategic pact to govern their partnership once foreign combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
The proposed accord would likely cover the legal status of any US troops remaining in Afghanistan to help Kabul with intelligence, air power and logistics in the fight against Taliban insurgents.
Merkel last visited Afghanistan in December 2010, to meet German soldiers just before Christmas. On that occasion she described the fighting there for the first time as "war".
Germany is the third biggest supplier of troops to the 130,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) after the United States and Britain.
It had 4,900 soldiers in Afghanistan as of February 1, but a further 500 are to be withdrawn by 2013 before a complete pullout planned by 2014.
Opinion polls have shown that the German mission, the first major Bundeswehr deployment outside of Europe since World War II, has been consistently unpopular in the country.
Shortly after her arrival, Merkel paid homage to the more than 50 German soldiers killed in Afghanistan since NATO-led troops first went into the country in 2001.
Merkel had also wanted to visit neighbouring Kunduz during her latest visit but had to abandon the idea due to heavy snowfall, the German news agency DPA reported.