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Merkel stands by embattled German foreign minister
German chancellor Merkel stands by foreign minister under fire for not crediting NATO on Libya
By The Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) ' Chancellor Angela Merkel is standing by her foreign minister even as he faces mounting criticism for his reluctance to acknowledge the role played by NATO airstrikes in forcing the downfall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

While France's foreign minister said Monday the two neighbors have "turned the page" on their differences over the airstrikes, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle faced dismal headlines at home. Der Spiegel magazine's website led with a story on him headlined: "It's over."

Westerwelle has been the target of sharp criticism after failing last week to credit NATO for giving decisive support for Libya's rebels ' instead insinuating for days that German-backed sanctions against Tripoli had played a key role.

Germany decided against taking part in NATO's military campaign in Libya and also abstained in the U.N. Security Council vote that authorized the mission ' a move that set it against its traditional western allies.

That appeared to be one reason for an attack on Germany's current course last week by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who said that his country "must urgently return to our old reliability" and wondered "where Germany stands today and where it wants to go."

At a joint appearance Monday with French counterpart Alain Juppe ' whose country helped lead the push for airstrikes ' Westerwelle said Germany has "great respect" for the role played by France and other NATO allies.

That echoed comments Westerwelle made Sunday, when he said he was "glad" Germany's allies had helped Libyan rebels through their bombing campaign. But the minister only changed his tune after other officials, and members of his own Free Democratic Party, had pointedly thanked NATO for its actions.

Juppe tried to play down the issue, focusing instead on future cooperation in rebuilding the North African country.

"We had the same aim: to allow the Libyan people to recover their freedom," he said after meeting Westerwelle.

"We did not have the same approach on the means of getting there," he said. But "today, this page has been turned, and we are side by side to help the Libyans build the Libya of tomorrow."

Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert insisted Monday the chancellor's relationship with Westerwelle is based on "trustful cooperation." He refused to be drawn on further questions over the minister's future. Westerwelle himself was silent on the issue.

Members of the opposition, however, suggested that he should go.

"Who is supposed to take a foreign minister who has been cut down to size by his own people seriously internationally?" asked Gernot Erler, a member of the opposition Social Democrats.

Westerwelle's role on the domestic stage had already diminished after he resigned as leader of the FDP, the junior partner in Merkel's coalition, and as vice chancellor earlier this year ' succumbing to anger over dire poll ratings and poor state election results.

The party's new leaders, however, appear reluctant to shake up the unpopular government again by removing him.


Geir Moulson contributed to this report.

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