|The German chancellor's visit comes ahead of a parliamentary vote to renew the German mission to Afghanistan [AFP]
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, telling German troops stationed in the north of the country that they are "embroiled in battles of the kind one has in war", and that this is "an entirely new experience for us".
Until earlier this year, the German government generally avoided using the word 'war' to describe the country's mission in Afghanistan.
The German Chancellor's remarks paying tribute to the troops' service in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) come as the German parliament is preparing to vote on renewing their mandate.
Merkel, her defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and the military's chief of staff arrived at Kunduz, where Germany has a military base, early on Saturday. She later continued to another German base at Mazar-e-Sharif, also in the north of the country.
In Kunduz, Merkel thanked troops for their "extremely dangerous" deployment.
Germany currently has nearly 4,700 troops serving in ISAF. It plans to start gradually withdrawing in late 2011.
This visit comes ahead of a parliamentary vote, expected in January, to renew authorisation of the country's mission to Afghanistan. The current mandate allows for a maximum deployment of 5,350 German soldiers.
All German deployments abroad require parliamentary approval, typically on a yearly basis. The vote is not expected to meet serious opposition.
Merkel told troops on Saturday that "the population in part views this deployment skeptically, yet it is still proud of you".
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that Germany was defending its own security in Afghanistan, but he added that while the "mission is right, [...] it cannot go on forever".
Meanwhile, the country's top security official, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, said Saturday that it is still not the appropriate time to scale down heightened domestic security measures ordered a month ago amid fears of an increased threat from extremists.
Casualty in Pul-e-Khumri
The German military on Friday confirmed that a 21-year-old soldier had died after being found with a gunshot wound at a military post in Pul-e-Khumri, in the north of Afghanistan. It said the wound appeared to be the result of an accident, but that the matter was being investigated.
The soldier was the 45th German military casualty in Afghanistan since the mission began nine years ago.