German embassies tighten security over skull photos

By Thorsten Severin

BERLIN – Germany warned its embassies to tighten security measures on Thursday amid concerns that photographs appearing to show soldiers desecrating a human skull in Afghanistan could harm its army’s image abroad.

Germany’s Foreign M

inistry alerted its missions in the Afghan capital Kabul and in the Middle East after top-selling daily Bild published pictures portraying servicemen in macabre and sometimes obscene poses with the skull.

“The embassies were informed early on about the pictures and made aware of their contents in order that they could take the necessary steps in terms of their security measures,” a ministry spokesman said.

Later on Thursday, German television station RTL published other photographs, which it said showed German soldiers striking poses with a human skull in Afghanistan in 2004. Bild said its pictures were taken in the spring of 2003.

Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung said that two serving and four former soldiers were being investigated over the newspaper photographs, and a spokesman for his ministry told Reuters a probe had also been launched into the second batch of images.

Jung condemned the pictures splashed across the front pages of Bild on Wednesday and Thursday, and said the army would investigate the training given to troops stationed abroad.

His criticism echoed that of Chancellor Angela Merkel and came amid fears the images could endanger German troops at a time when the army is increasing its activities abroad.

In Kabul, the Afghan Foreign Ministry said the country was deeply saddened by the apparent desecration and called on Germany “to investigate the matter, bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure such actions are not repeated”.

The scandal coincides with the presentation on Thursday to lawmakers of a new long-term national security policy which sees an increasingly important role for the armed forces abroad.

SKULL PICTURES

One photograph printed by Bild on Wednesday showed an unidentified soldier, dressed in desert fatigues, clutching the skull next to his exposed penis.

Another featured on the front page of Thursday’s edition showed two soldiers putting the skull on the front of their jeep under the headline: “Desecration of the dead in Afghanistan.”

Newspapers were concerned over damage to the army’s image.

“German soldiers pose in Afghanistan with a human skull and bring the entire mission into disrepute,” daily Die Welt said. “It is not the first scandal involving the armed forces but it could be the one with the greatest consequences.”

The Bild pictures were apparently taken more than three years ago during a routine tour around the Afghan capital Kabul.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said on Thursday he did not think the photographs would make the situation worse for the 3,000 German troops in Afghanistan.

“It is naturally not good for the image of the armed forces, nor for the image of NATO,” he told Deutschlandfunk radio. “But this is the exception and not the rule.”

Bild has not said how it knows the photos are genuine, or how it obtained them. On Wednesday, it quoted an unidentified army member as saying the skull may have come from a mass grave. — Reuter

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