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German defense minister under fire over far-right soldier

Associated Press logo Associated Press 3/05/2017 By FRANK JORDANS, Associated Press
From left, German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen talk together prior to the weekly cabinet meeting of the German government at the chancellery in Berlin, Wednesday, May 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber) © The Associated Press From left, German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen talk together prior to the weekly cabinet meeting of the German government at the chancellery in Berlin, Wednesday, May 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

BERLIN — The arrest of a German army officer suspected of plotting a far-right attack is putting fresh pressure on the country's defense minister, already under fire over a series of abuse cases within Germany's armed forces.

Canceling a planned trip to the United States, Ursula von der Leyen dashed to the French town of Illkirch on Wednesday to visit the barracks where the 28-year-old lieutenant was stationed as part of a Franco-German brigade until his arrest last week.

Prosecutors say the man, identified only as Franco A. due to German privacy laws, allegedly planned to carry out an attack. He had previously come to the attention of superiors for expressing far-right views in a 2014 dissertation written as part of his officer's training, but was let off with a warning.

Von der Leyen said it had been a mistake for A.'s superiors to play down the initial concerns, given that his thesis contained views that were "clearly racist and far-right extremist" in nature.

She planned to meet Thursday with the heads of Germany's armed forces to discuss the officer's case as well as separate investigations of alleged hazing and sexual abuse within the military stretching back several years.

"We need to have a no-holds-barred investigation, and I say this also with a view to other incidents in recent weeks where people were bullied, where they were denigrated, which won't be tolerated under any circumstances," said von der Leyen.

She said she wasn't ruling out dismissals.

The allegations involving the army lieutenant is one of 280 instances of suspected far-right extremism being investigated by Germany's military intelligence, officials said. The Germany military, or Bundeswehr, has some 178,000 active duty personnel.

A. came to the attention of authorities after he was arrested in February for hiding a pistol in a Vienna airport bathroom. He was freed, but Austrian authorities informed Germany, and a fingerprint match showed he had managed to register as a refugee and claim financial aid.

Investigators suspect he was planning an attack that he may have wanted to blame on foreigners. A 24-year-old student from the soldier's hometown of Offenbach was also arrested in the case.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said von der Leyen had "the full support of the chancellor and the entire German government to investigate all aspects of the Franco A. case insofar as they concern the Bundeswehr."

Merkel's main challenger in upcoming German elections, Martin Schulz of the Social Democratic Party, suggested the defense minister should take political responsibility for the case.

"I think that in such cases...the political responsibility shouldn't be offloaded onto the troops," Schulz told public broadcaster WDR.

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