German defence minister von der Leyen under fire for criticising army

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image captionUrsula von der Leyen is seen as a leading figure in Chancellor Merkel's CDU party

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen has provoked an angry response from politicians and military figures alike after she spoke of weak leadership in the armed forces.

She spoke out after an army lieutenant was arrested on suspicion of plotting a racist attack.

The minister said his superior officers had looked the other way and the army had an attitude problem.

But critics said she had offended every honest soldier.

The alleged plot, revealed last week, involved a 28-year-old soldier who had used a fake identity to register as a Syrian refugee in December 2015.

Franco A spoke no Arabic and is thought to have been planning an attack disguised as a refugee. It emerged he had expressed far-right views in an academic paper for a military academy in 2014.

Tagesspiegel newspaper said he had a list of five possible targets for attacks, including former German President Joachim Gauck and Justice Minister Heiko Maas.

Another soldier was arrested after being found with explosives.

The defence ministry believes Franco A was part of a cell of up to five people, according to German media.

The ministry announced on Tuesday that Ms Von der Leyen had cancelled a planned trip to the United States so she could deal with the domestic issue.

Instead, she will travel on Wednesday to Illkirch, the French town south of Strasbourg where Franco A was stationed with the German army.

The federal prosecutor's office has taken over the investigation into the alleged plot.

"I should have dug deeper earlier," the minister told broadcaster ZDF.

image source, Getty Images
image captionSome critics argued that Ms Von der Leyen had unfairly condemned the whole army

Ms Von der Leyen has headed the defence department since 2013 and is seen as a leading figure in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

Her initial criticism of the army's handling of the case was made on national TV on Sunday night and she followed it up with an open letter.

Apology demand

While the vast majority of soldiers behaved impeccably, she said the latest scandals were no longer isolated cases. She spoke of "a misunderstood esprit de corps" that had led superior officers to "look the other way".

The Social Democrats' defence spokesman, Rainer Arnold, called on Ms Von der Leyen to apologise for raising questions about the whole army.

How could you explain such generalisations to soldiers serving in foreign countries like Mali who were having to deal with the toughest assignments with limited equipment? he asked.

"Nobody can understand why the minister, after three and a half years in office, retreats to the stands, so to speak, and sweepingly condemns her own team," said André Wüstner of the armed forces union, the Bundeswehrverband.

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