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Germany may assist in air defense over Bosnia

In what could become its first combat mission since World War II, Germany plans to send fighter jets to Bosnia this summer to counter Serb missile radar.

Germany wants the mission to boost its standing in European defense arrangements and the European Union by showing a willingness to take risks in support of its NATO allies.

"This is a sensible government that makes sensible decisions," Chancellor Helmut Kohl said in Cannes, France, where he was meeting with other EU leaders.

The $241-million mission, expected to win parliamentary approval Friday, followed months of agonizing over whether German troops should venture into the Balkans, where the Nazis slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Serbs and others in World War II.

Germans know that among the history-conscious Serbs, they are viewed with deep suspicion.

The commander of a Tornado fighter squadron called the mission a deciding moment for Germany's postwar military.

"We hope to be a deterrent, but of course it could come to shooting, and that hasn't happened in 50 years," said Lt. Col. Johann G. Dora, 46, commander of Fighter Bomber Squadron 32 in Lechfeld, near Munich.

"Naturally, we've all had doubts about the wisdom of a mission in an area where the German Wehrmacht committed atrocities, but we can't eternally fall back on historical guilt."

It is not clear whether Dora's pilots will ever see real combat. They will fly only if needed to back up the new force of French, British and Dutch troops sent to protect U.N. peacekeepers.

In the coming weeks, 16 German jets and 12 transport planes will transfer to NATO bases in Italy. They include eight ECR-Tornado anti-radar jets under Dora's command. Their mission is to locate and, if necessary, destroy Serb surface-to-air missile sites.

The ECR-Tornadoes, armed with HARM missiles, have been sought by NATO for months because U.S. anti-radar planes capable of destroying missile batteries aren't always available.

A radar-guided missile downed U.S. pilot Scott O'Grady.

Germany will base some 1,000 staff, ground crews and support personnel in Italy and 500 medics at a field hospital in the Croatian port of Split.

Deployment of the Tornado aircraft is sensitive because it could mark the German military's first foreign-combat role since the Nazis' defeat in 1945.

A debate in the Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament, is expected to take place on Friday.

Kohl's center-right coalition has slowly discarded Germany's postwar pacifism and pushed to make Germany a military contender. After sitting out the Persian Gulf war, it sent an engineering battalion to Somalia in 1993.

Many delegates outside of Kohl's Christian Democratic Union oppose any deployment of German troops outside NATO territory.

German liberals, in particular, believe that after the extensive damage that German armies caused in Europe and elsewhere in the earlier decades of this century, modern Germany has a moral obligation to keep its army on an extremely short leash.

The left-wing Greens are against the mission.

Party spokesman Juergen Trittin called the proposal a "blank check for Germany to become a war party in Yugoslavia."