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German Minister Forced To Explain Afghan Response

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in Kabul on November 12
BERLIN (Reuters) -- German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has rejected media criticism of his initial assessment of a German-ordered air strike in Afghanistan in September that killed civilians.

Guttenberg, widely seen as a rising star in Germany, last week reversed his defense of the strike, calling it "militarily inappropriate" for the first time. But in the last few days media have questioned his original, more positive, assessment.

Revelations about the September 4 strike on two tankers in Konduz, which Kabul says killed 30 civilians and 69 Taliban, have triggered a row over a German cover-up and claimed the job of cabinet minister Franz Josef Jung, defense minister at the time.

The strike was carried out by a U.S. warplane, at the request of German forces on the ground.

"Stern" weekly reported that Guttenberg, who succeeded Jung in October, defended the strike even after he had received an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report which mentioned 74 dead civilians, including young children.

Guttenberg's spokesman said the minister had in fact referred to the Red Cross report at a news conference after receiving it on November 6 and had focused on the differing estimates of the number of civilian casualties.

"It is clear that the minister acknowledged the content of the report regarding victims and also incorporated it into his views," said a defense ministry spokesman at a regular government news conference when asked about the report, which "Stern" said concluded the strike breached international law.

The air strike row, which also caused the head of Germany's armed forces to quit, has clouded the start of Chancellor Angela Merkel's second term and could affect Germany's looming decision on whether to boost its troop levels in Afghanistan.

Germany has a mandate to send up to 4,500 soldiers to Afghanistan as part of NATO's mission.

Guttenberg, 38, is Germany's most popular politician after Merkel but a prolonged debate over the Afghanistan mission could hurt him. Merkel herself faces a grilling by a parliamentary committee on the issue.

"Der Spiegel" weekly has also reported Guttenberg had access to details of exchanges between the German commander who ordered the strike and skeptical U.S. pilots, which also raises questions as to whether he should have backed the strike.