German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen addresses journalists, after her visit at the Jaeger Battalion 291 (Light Infantry) based at the "Quartier Leclerc", a military facility for French and German military units in Illkirch-Graffenstaden near Strasbourg, France May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler(reuters_tickers)
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen apologised for the tone of her criticism of the military over its handling of a racism case, as she sought to contain a divisive furore in the build up to national elections.
Von der Leyen, from Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling conservatives, earlier this week criticised what she called "weak leadership" in the military after an officer was arrested on suspicion of planning a racist attack.
Soldiers' groups reacted to her criticism with dismay - and politicians, including the leader of junior coalition partner the Social Democrats (SPD), said she also bore responsibility after her three years in the job.
During a meeting with 100 top generals and admirals, von der Leyen said she should have prefaced her remarks by recognising the "indispensable service" of the 250,000 people in the armed forces.
"I'm sorry I didn't do it. I regret it," she told the officers in her remarks made on Thursday and published a day later by Der Spiegel news magazine.
She added that she remained concerned about a culture that had allowed the suspect to continue his career despite racist ideas contained in his master's thesis, and that failed to crack down on hazing and sexual abuse in other cases.
The case has focussed political and media attention on fears over racism in the military - and on the minister's own handling of a ministry which has been rocked by a series of harassment scandals, as well as delays and cost increase in big arms programmes.
The government's spokesman has come out twice in the past week to state its support for the minister, in the face of the criticism of her comments.
"Mrs. von der Leyen must shift her focus from self-defence to investigation. The principles of internal leadership don't just count for soldiers, but for the ministry as well," the SPD's Schulz told Der Spiegel in an interview published on Friday.
The opposition Greens party have joined the SPD in asking von der Leyen to testify about the case at a special session of the parliamentary defence committee next week, raising the political stakes in the build-up to September elections.
Separately, lawmakers told the Freie Presse newspaper the military's counter-intelligence agency (MAD) should have identified the arrested officer as a potential threat.
"The MAD cannot evade responsibility," said Andre Hahn, a Left party member and vice chief of the parliamentary committee that oversees the work of German intelligence agencies, told the newspaper.
(Reporting by Sabine Siebold; Writing by Andrea Shalal)