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German defense minister nixes US trip over soldier's arrest

Associated Press logo Associated Press 2/05/2017

BERLIN — Germany's defense minister canceled a trip to the United States Tuesday amid a widening government probe of a possible far-right cell with ties to the German army.

Authorities last week arrested 28-year-old army lieutenant Franco A., who managed to register as a Syrian asylum-seeker without being detected, on suspicion of preparing an act of violence. His last name wasn't given in line with privacy regulations.

Investigators have said the officer may have planned to blame a possible future attack on foreigners, and the RND media group reported Tuesday that defense officials believe he was part of a small far-right group of around five people.

Federal prosecutors have now taken over the case — a sign that investigators may be considering more serious charges against the suspect and possible accomplices.

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has been critical of military leadership, and canceled her Wednesday trip to New York and Washington to better focus on the investigation surrounding the case, the dpa news agency reported.

Investigators are trying to determine how A., who was stationed in France and spoke no Arabic, managed to dupe German authorities into believing he was a Syrian refugee, and be given a place in a refugee home and financial aid.

Officials say the officer registered in the state of Hesse at the end of 2015 and had been living "sporadically" at a home for asylum-seekers since January 2016.

He came to the attention of authorities after allegedly stashing a pistol in a Vienna airport bathroom and being caught when he went to retrieve it in February.

He was freed but Austrian authorities informed Germany, and a fingerprint match showed he'd registered as a refugee, prompting a wider investigation.

A 24-year-old student from the soldier's hometown of Offenbach has also been arrested in the case.

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