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Merkel defends Germany's troop deployment in Afghanistan

Chancellor Angela Merkel vigorously defended Germany's politically contentious troop deployment in Afghanistan, a day after one of two Germans kidnapped there was found dead.

"We will not react to the Taliban's demands. We will do everything responsibly, and we will not be blackmailed," Merkel said Sunday on ARD public television when asked about demands from Taliban Islamic radicals that German withdraw its troops from northern Afghanistan.

On Saturday, a purported Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan said militants shot and killed two German hostages because Germany had not yielded to demands to pull out. But Afghan and German officials said intelligence indicated that one hostage died from a medical cause apparently related to the trauma of being captured, and the other was still alive.

Merkel said she did not have new information about the hostage situation, but that a government crisis team in Berlin "has worked intensively all day, and we're doing everything possible to save the life of the German citizen."

Merkel stressed the government's commitment to making NATO's mission in Afghanistan a success despite the hostage taking and increasing warnings from security officials that Germany may be targeted in a terrorist attack. She underlined the significance of the troops' deployment in Afghanistan's north, and of their efforts in rebuilding civilian infrastructure and offering aid.

"We are there because German security is also being protected over there," Merkel said. "It is our concept to combine military issues with reconstruction."

Also Sunday, August Hanning, a deputy Interior Minister who used to run Germany's foreign intelligence agency, was quoted as saying in weekly Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that "we have a lot of evidence that al-Qaida has an eye on Germany and German institutions, for example embassies."

Roughly 3,000 German soldiers are serving in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Merkel's government is committed to keeping German troops there under a series of mandates passed by parliament. But those mandates are up for renewal later this year, and opposition politicians have called on the government to withdraw the troops. Sixty-nine deputies from the Social Democratic Party, which governs along with Merkel's Christian Democrats, voted against sending German reconnaissance jets to Afghanistan.

The leader of The Left, a party of disgruntled former Social Democrats and former East German communists, has called for a pullout. The party is small, but has been drawing support from the Social Democrats recently, putting more pressure on the party's stance in favor of the deployment.

The chancellor said parliament should renew all three mandates for Afghanistan: the extension of German troops with ISAF, the participation in "Enduring Freedom," where 1,300 German naval personnel are patrolling off the Horn of Africa, and the deployment of six Tornado reconnaissance jets.

The German parliament approved the NATO-requested deployment of the planes, accompanied by some 200 military personnel in March, and gave the mission a six-month mandate, expiring mid-October.

The deployment irked some in Germany who worried the Tornado deployment was a combat mission in disguise that would draw the country into the fighting in volatile southern Afghanistan.

Berlin repeatedly has stressed the importance of combining military strength with civilian rebuilding efforts, and has resisted pressure to send combat troops to the south, where American, British and Canadian soldiers have borne the brunt of fighting with resurgent Taliban rebels.

In a poll taken May 22 by the Emnid organization for N24 television, 68 percent opposed involvement in Afghanistan while 29 percent favored it. The polls, taken in the wake the killing of three German soldiers in a market bombing in Kunduz, showed a noticeable shift from 2002, when 55 percent were in favor and 44 percent against.

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