Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed disgust at photos that appeared to show German troops in Afghanistan posing with a human skull and pledged that any soldiers found to be involved would be punished severely.
The macabre pictures were published by Germany’s biggest-selling daily, Bild, which said they showed German peacekeepers near the Afghan capital of Kabul in early 2003.
The uniformed men were seen holding up the skull and posing with it on a 4x4 vehicle; one is seen exposing himself with the skull. Bild’s headline declared: “German soldiers desecrate a dead person.”
The newspaper said it was unclear where the skull came from, but cited an unidentified serviceman as saying it may have come from a suspected “mass grave” outside Kabul.
Bild, which would not identify the source of the photos, said it was unclear whether the skull belonged to an Afghan or dated back to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
“We all saw pictures that are shocking, that are repugnant and that can be excused by nothing,” Merkel said during a speech in Berlin. “The government will investigate the soldiers who play a role and act with full severity.”
Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung said that “we are conducting the investigation at full steam”.
If the incident is confirmed, he added, those involved will face “disciplinary or even criminal measures”.
“Anyone who behaves this way has no place in the Bundeswehr,” Jung said, referring to the German military.
Military chief of staff Gen. Wolfgang Schneiderhan said two suspects had been identified and were being questioned. One of them is still with the military and the other had left, he said.
Prosecutors in Potsdam, where the military has its command centre for deployments abroad, opened an investigation after the pictures were published, spokesman Wilfried Lehmann said. Possible charges include disturbing the peace of the dead, he said.
Germany is proud of its post-Second World War military training rules, which reflect lessons drawn from the Nazi era by urging soldiers to take responsibility for their actions.
Jung said the incident shown in the photos is “diametrically opposed to the values and ways of behaviour” that German troops are taught in training.
Germany currently has about 2,800 troops in the Nato force in Afghanistan, serving in the country’s relatively calm north. Jung said he hoped the photos would not complicate efforts to win over Afghan civilians.
“One has to see one thing clearly – so far, the mission we have been carrying out in the North has met with broad approval from the population,” he said.
At a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US, Said Tayeb Jawad, said the photos were seen only as an act of “misguided individuals,” but that the German government should investigate.
He noted that insurgents were “conducting very effective public relations against us, against humanity, against freedom, and you should not give them any opportunity to undermine the good cause that these soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan or in other countries”.
Yesterday’s photos came a week after politicians decided to investigate unrelated allegations that German special forces in Afghanistan abused a prisoner who later spent years in the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turk, has claimed that two German soldiers came to interrogate him at a camp near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar in 2002 and slammed his head into the ground.
The Defence Ministry has said German soldiers questioned about the allegations recalled that a German speaker was among prisoners they helped guard near Kandahar.
However, the only contact they remembered was one soldier calling out to the man.