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Germans Prepare for Kosovo Role

April 3, 1999

AMBERG, Germany (AP) _ With the debate in NATO over sending ground troops into Kosovo growing, Germans used to watching their soldiers sit out allied operations because of World War II inhibitions are nervously preparing to do their part this time.

Three thousand German soldiers are already in Macedonia, a quarter of the NATO force on standby there to monitor a hoped-for peace agreement. Dozens of tanks and troop transports have also been sent down, as well as antitank and anti-aircraft rockets.

The Defense Ministry insists the hardware is not for a ground war, but to protect the troops in case of attack while they wait for a peace deal.

But with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic showing no signs of backing down, fears are spreading at home that NATO may be preparing to fight its way into Kosovo to stop Serb attacks on the ethnic Albanian population.

``It’s a new experience for the people here,″ said military chaplain Wolfgang Schilk in Amberg, an old army town in the mountains of Bavaria, near the Czech border.

For the first time in memory for most, he said, ``German soldiers could be involved in ground operations. NATO doesn’t want to, but people see it could be a danger.″

The picture of three battered Americans captured Thursday only raises the anxiety level.

``People are afraid for our soldiers,″ Schilk said. ``But only a few would say we should leave Kosovo alone.″

Germany’s Nazi past _ and its position at ground zero of the Cold War _ fostered strong pacifist sentiments that kept the German army, or Bundeswehr, at home for decades.

Prodded by its allies, Germany in recent years began to play more of a world role. After much public soul-searching, it joined U.N. peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Somalia.

Committing Tornado jets to NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia was an even bigger step. Not only is there no explicit U.N. mandate, but it marks the first time Germany has attacked a sovereign nation since World War II.

Still, a recent poll found 62 percent of Germans supported the Bundeswehr’s participation in the NATO action, while 31 percent opposed it. The Forsa poll of 1,001 Germans, conducted March 25-26, had a margin of error of three percentage points.

``If it comes to a ground war, I think German soldiers should take part,″ said Miroslaw Hirniak, a 37-year-old glass factory worker on his way to Good Friday church services. ``We have to show solidarity with our allies.″

``The only difference is the past,″ said Michael Polt, a 28-year-old physicist who was biking through Amberg’s 15th-century market square. ``But otherwise I don’t think there’s really any difference between us and other NATO countries.″

Heike Scheuer, an editor at the local Amberger Zeitung newspaper, said feelings might change if Germans suffer casualties.

``Then we’ll have big discussions in Germany,″ she said. Despite outrage over atrocities in Kosovo, ``most Germans still don’t feel too good about being in a war.″

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