The World From Berlin Shadow Creeping Over Steinmeier

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is in the firing line over whether he blocked the release of a German-born -- and innocent -- Guantánamo prisoner in 2002. The affair could turn ugly for him and the German government, write German media commentars. Meanwhile the German papers wonder what is to be done in Lebanon to stop Beirut burning.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is under fire over the Kurnaz affair.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is under fire over the Kurnaz affair.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is facing troublesome questions about his actions as head of chancellery in the previous German government under Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer. He has denied allegations that he refused a 2002 offer from the US to release Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turk who was being held at the time in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp -- a decision that allegedly condemned the innocent man to four more years of incarceration until his eventual release in August 2006.

"I am not aware of ... such an official offer," Steinmeier told reporters on Tuesday in Brussels in his first public comments on the matter after government documents came to light suggesting the German government refused the US offer. Steinmeier's statement begs the question of whether he received any unofficial offer to release Murat Kurnaz.

The questions threaten to taint one of Germany's most popular politicians, and has serious implications for the grand coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and conservatives should he resign, say German commentators.

Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes: "There's an element of Schadenfreude among the conservatives as they see how a shadow is creeping over Steinmeier, a popular senior member of their SPD coalition allies. There are policy differences between the two camps. The chancellor regards Steinmeier's stance towards Russia as too cuddly.

"But the requirements of the coalition forbid the conservatives to distance themselves too far from the foreign minister: Steinmeier's fall would have grave consequences for the stability of the coalition and the government.

"What would an SPD in turmoil do to save itself? Who would they send into the cabinet? Would party chairman Kurt Beck stride onto the big stage in Berlin? The conservatives cannot be sure that a new constellation would be any better for them than it is now."

Left-wing daily Die Tageszeitung writes: "Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was head of chancellery at the time and is foreign minister today, will have to resign if the EU report based on 'confidential institutional information' is confirmed. That applies regardless of whether the offer was official or not, as Steinmeier's statement yesterday leads one to assume.

"The German public ... has a right to be fully informed on the behavior of the Schröder/Fischer government in its final three years in office.

"How far did this government's political and material support for the war on terror and the Iraq war really go? And where did the red-green government breach national and international law? If these questions aren't answered, confidence in democracy will sustain lasting damage."

David Crossland, 14:00 CET

Lebanon Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has left Beirut for Paris to attend an international aid conference for Lebanon, a day after opposition groups suspended protests that had paralysed the country and sparked violence. His Western-backed government hopes to get billions of dollars of aid at the conference on Thursday to ease the burden of Lebanon's public debt and help the country recover from the July-August war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Opposition protests demanding veto power in government and early elections turned violent on Tuesday, forcing Saniora to delay his trip. Three people were killed and 133 hurt in clashes between government loyalists and opposition demonstrators. The opposition, which includes Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, had blocked highways with burning tyres but decided later on Tuesday to dismantle its barricades, saying protests would resume unless the government bowed to its demands.

Business daily Handelsblatt writes: "Beirut is burning -- again. It may be too early to forecast a new civil war. But memories of the 1980s are being revived. It's not just Lebanon that is suffering from the consequences of what happened under the eyes of an international community which did nothing at the time. The whole region was destabilised. That's why everyone who can, must intervene to calm the opposing factions.

"It's up to the Europeans, the Americans, and of course the Syrians, who continue to exert power in the country.

"One shouldn't pin too much hope on the donors conference for Lebanon starting tomorrow in Paris. Money can at best accompany diplomacy. Diplomacy must focus on pushing the Shi'ite Hezbollah to disarm. One must now persuade the Syrians to withhold weapons supplies from the Lebanese opposition.

"One shouldn't be misled by Syria's martial rhetoric. After all, it's no longer just a rumor that Syria has been in contact with Israel for several years. Only at an informal, private level admittedly, but even that wouldn't be possible without the approval of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"Europe must make it clear to the Americans that it can only be counterproductive if they continue to treat Damascus as a pariah."

Conservative Die Welt writes: "Once again fanaticism threatens the future of the country. The issues in Lebanon today are the same as they have been for decades: the power and influence of the traditional political clans and religious fanaticism.

"The conflict is being fanned by Iran and Syria which are pursuing their own agenda: they want to extend the Shi'ite sphere of influence to the Mediterranean, and chaos suits their purpose.

"The principle of power sharing between the Christians, Muslims and Druze in Lebanon is extremely vulnerable. It requires comprehensive economic policy therapy rather than financial aid linked to specific persons, and it definitely doesn't need proxy wars. Only when this is realized, both in Lebanon and the Western democracies, will the barricades stop burning."

David Crossland, 14:00 CET


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