By Emsie Ferreira, AFP
Chancellor Angela Merkel promised tough action after German soldiers in Afghanistan were photographed playing and posing with a human skull.
"The chancellor has made it clear that she finds these pictures shocking and disgusting," government spokesman Thomas Steg said, adding that Merkel wanted the troops responsible to face "strict measures."
Germany's top-selling newspaper Bild on Wednesday printed the photographs of four German soldiers from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force displaying a skull like scalp hunters.
The defence ministry said it had launched an internal investigation and was questioning two men, while Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung threatened to throw the culprits out of the army.
In one of the pictures, a soldier mounts the skull on the cablecutter at the front of a patrol vehicle, which bears both the German flag and the acronym for the international force, ISAF.
In another, a soldier in camouflage uniform and a bullet-proof vest poses with the skull next to his exposed penis.
Bild said the photographs were taken in spring 2003.
The report said the soldiers found the skull in a gravel pit on the outskirts of Kabul while they were patrolling near the Afghan capital.
But the defence ministry said in a statement that it was possible that the soldiers had taken it from a cemetery south of Kabul where it had been exposed by the weather.
Jung told reporters: "These pictures revolt and mystify me."
"It is clear that such behaviour cannot be tolerated from German soldiers. It runs counter to the values and codes of conduct we try to instill in our soldiers. People who behave like this have no place in the Bundeswehr."
The chief of staff of the Bundeswehr, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, said a reservist and a junior officer were being questioned about the incident. Both men were from the Bundeswehr base at Mittenwald in Bavaria in southern Germany.
One of them has completed his tour of duty in Afghanistan and left the army.
"One is still a soldier, one is not. Both are being questioned," Schneiderhan told a press conference.
Schneiderhan said one of the men had come forward after seeing the pictures.
The state prosecuter's office in Potsdam, outside Berlin, confirmed that it had launched a criminal investigation into the affair on the charge of "disturbing the peace of the dead."
The head of Germany's main soldiers' union, Bernhard Gertz, compared the pictures to those of US military personnel abusing detainees in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
"Both cases show a lack of respect for human dignity. This is a big setback for the Bundeswehr," he told AFP.
An expert on Afghanistan at the Centre for Development Research in Bonn, Conrad Schetter, warned that German troops could face increased attacks in the Islamic nation for desecrating a human skeleton.
"It is hard to do worse than this in Muslim eyes," he said.
The scandal broke just hours before the German cabinet decided to extend by 12 months the mandate of troops taking part in the US-led campaign against terrorism code-named "Operation Enduring Freedom."
The extension gives Berlin the option of redeploying its KSK elite forces in Afghanistan to help fight the resurgent Taliban.
It also coincided with the release of the defence ministry's first major policy manifesto since 1994, which Jung said paved the ground for Germany to take on more international peacekeeping missions.
Germany is the second biggest contributor of peacekeepers to Afghanistan with 2,750 troops and holds the command of ISAF in the north.
The Bundestag, or lower house of the German parliament, voted last month to extend the troops' mandate in Afghanistan until October 2007.
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