German defence minister scraps US trip over soldier scandal

Berlin (AFP) - Germany's Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday scrapped a US trip to deal with a scandal over a far-right soldier who allegedly plotted an attack while posing as a Syrian refugee.

Police last Wednesday arrested the 28-year-old army lieutenant, identified as Franco A., who had created a false identity as a Damascus fruit seller, complete with a spot in a German refugee shelter.

Federal prosecutors, who handle terrorism cases, have taken over the investigation against the soldier, whose case came to light after he was caught with a loaded gun at the Vienna airport in February.

Von der Leyen on Sunday harshly criticised the armed forces for leadership failures, attitude problems and for tolerating rightwing extremists, as well as sexual abuse cases, in its ranks.

The scandal widened when it emerged that the lieutenant had expressed rightwing extremist views in a 2014 academic paper, but that no disciplinary action was taken against him.

Von der Leyen criticised "a misunderstood esprit de corps" that had led superior officers to "look the other way".

Soldiers have reacted angrily, accusing her of collectively tarring them while failing to take responsibility herself.

Now the minister has called off a scheduled US visit and instead plans to visit Wednesday the Franco-German base near Strasbourg where the suspect had been stationed.

- 'Serious mistakes' -

"The minister's priority is to clear up the ongoing case around lieutenant A.," the defence ministry said.

On Thursday she plans to meet about 100 high-ranking military personnel in Berlin to discuss ways to reform the armed forces.

The military intelligence service is currently investigating around 280 cases of suspected far-right sympathisers in the forces.

The lieutenant was first temporarily detained in February by Austrian police after he tried to retrieve a loaded, unregistered handgun he had hidden in a toilet at Vienna airport.

This sparked an investigation in which a fingerprint check threw up an even bigger surprise -- the suspect had in December 2015 created a false identity as a Syrian refugee.

The soldier, who has an Italian father and German mother, had pretended to be a Damascus fruit seller named "David Benjamin" -- ostensibly a Catholic with Jewish roots who had fled the Islamic State militant group.

The Bild newspaper has reported that police found a "death list" compiled by the suspect, including anti-fascist leftwing activists.

Police have also arrested an alleged co-conspirator, a 24-year-old student identified by the media as Mathias F.

Von der Leyen and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, in charge of refugee issues, have vowed to clear up the embarrassing case, which led the Social Democrats' secretary general Katarina Barley to label the two ministers a "security risk" for Germany.

And the Social Democrats' parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann attacked de Maiziere over the "incredible" case, in which a light-haired applicant who spoke no Arabic was nonetheless registered as a refugee.

He said he worried what other "serious mistakes" had been made as authorities registered a mass influx of one million asylum seekers since 2015.

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