German defense minister cancels U.S. trip to focus on officer's arrest

Reuters News
Posted: May 02, 2017 8:52 AM

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday canceled a visit to the United States to focus on the arrest of an army officer suspected of planning a racially motivated attack, the ministry said.

Von der Leyen had planned to travel to New York and Washington on Wednesday and Thursday for meetings with U.N. officials and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

"The minister's top priority is to clear up the circumstances in the case of First Lieutenant A. from Illkirch," the ministry said in a statement, referring to the French town south of Strasbourg where the officer was stationed with a German army brigade.

Germany's chief federal prosecutor's office on Tuesday said it had taken over the case from state prosecutors, with a spokesman citing "preliminary indications of preparations for a serious attack against the state".

Further details were not immediately available.

Von der Leyen on Sunday attacked "weak leadership" in the armed forces, or Bundeswehr. She blasted military leaders for not responding appropriately to "primitive racial ideas" contained in a paper that the suspect had written for his master's degree at a military academy.

German police last week arrested the 28-year-old first lieutenant, who had falsely registered as a Syrian refugee, and also detained a 24-year-old student who was found to be in possession of explosives. Prosecutors said that both men harbored "xenophobic views".

The 28-year-old had previously been detained by Austrian authorities on suspicion of having hidden a gun in a bathroom at Vienna's main Schwechat airport. Investigators later discovered he had used a fake identity to register as a Syrian refugee, even though he spoke no Arabic, raising concerns that he planned to carry out an attack to frame refugees.

The bizarre case surfaced days after von der Leyen fired another top officer who had overseen the military's training command, in the wake of a sexual hazing and harassment scandal at a training base.

Speaking on ZDF television at the weekend, von der Leyen said the "Bundeswehr has an attitude problem and it evidently has weak leadership at different levels."

On Monday she sent a follow-up letter to all members of the armed forces, saying she had asked the army's inspector general to examine any extremist or racist tendencies and why such problems had not been properly and fully tackled.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Sabine Siebold and Thorsten Severin; Editing by Madeline Chambers and Mark Trevelyan)