The West German government insisted today that the deployment of Pershing II nuclear missiles would continue despite growing public demands to ban the missiles until the cause of an accident that killed three U.S. soldiers and injured 16 others has been determined.
Defense Minister Manfred Woerner, addressing a special parliamentary debate called by the opposition Social Democrats, stressed that there were no structural or design problems with the missile.
He said that the U.S. Army had changed its training drills after a Pershing II missile motor, packed with solid fuel, burst into flames as a crane hoisted it from its shipping container two weeks ago.
The accident has aroused renewed controversy over the presence of the missiles in West Germany. Last night the town council of Heilbronn, near Camp Red Leg where the tragedy occurred, voted unanimously for the removal of all Pershing II missiles from the base.
The council, led by a member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's ruling Christian Democratic Union and representing 110,000 citizens, also urged a ban on all training exercises in the area until the origins of the missile fire are discovered.
The town council decisions are largely symbolic, since installation of the missiles was approved by the West German parliament and is being carried out by the U.S. Army. But the public outrage reflects an abrupt turnabout in the mood of Germans living near the Pershing bases. In the past, many voiced support for deployment and expressed annoyance with the protest groups that gathered near the bases.
Maj. Michael Griffon, spokesman for the 56th Field Artillery Brigade, which operates the missiles, emphasized that nuclear weapons were not involved in the accident and that the civilian population had not been endangered at any time.
Griffon said three Army teams investigating the accident were still sifting through evidence and analyzing eyewitness accounts and had reached no conclusions about what ignited the flash fire. He said the Army has "modified its training procedures" with the Pershings, but he would not elaborate.
In today's debate in parliament, Woerner warned against exploiting the affair to revive the campaign to block further delivery of the missiles. At least half of the 108 Pershing IIs are now deployed, according to NATO officials.
Woerner insisted that the missiles had not increased the threat of war, but had enhanced stability by strengthening the western deterrent against the Soviet SS20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles targeted on Western Europe.
He said the decision to proceed with deployment of the missiles was largely responsible for persuading the Soviet Union to return to arms control negotiations.
"War by mistake" resulting from an accident was impossible, Woerner said, because nuclear warheads were stored under the strictest security precautions.
Opposition Social Democrats argued strenuously with Woerner's claims and accused the Kohl government of trying to play down the incident. They charged that the ruling center-right coalition was being negligent by refusing to admit that the missiles were rushed into deployment at a pace that precluded rigorous safety controls.