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Germany backs G20 statement on Syria a day late

VILNIUS (Reuters) - Germany said on Saturday it would sign a Group of 20 statement that calls for a strong international response to Syria’s alleged gas attack, agreeing a day after other European powers because it wanted to ensure unity within the European Union.

The absence of Germany’s signature on Friday’s statement, which falls short of supporting a military strike on Syria, sparked criticism at home that Chancellor Angela Merkel was abandoning Germany’s allies to avoid alienating voters.

Germany holds a federal election in two weeks, and the electorate overwhelmingly opposes military action in Syria, while international allies insist on German support.

Merkel explained the delay in signing by saying Germany had wanted to establish a common European Union position on Syria first.

“The signal of a Europe united in its position on this terrible conflict is of immeasurable support. The success in Vilnius shows, how right it was for Germany, to push first for a common European position,” she said in a statement.

EU foreign ministers meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Vilnius on Saturday agreed the world “cannot remain idle” and said a clear and strong response was needed to prevent any future use of chemical weapons in Syria.

“We always think Germany should also be the advocate of the so-called smaller countries in the European Union who have not the opportunity to participate at the G20 meetings,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said afterward.

“After we saw this excellent and very wise position of the European Union, the (German) Chancellor (Angela Merkel) and myself decided that we support now the G20 statement.”

The website of Die Zeit weekly said on Friday not signing the G20 document was “a low point” in Merkel’s career.

“Does she really think Germany doesn’t need any friends anymore?” it asked.

Merkel is tipped to win a third term in the September 22 vote but it is not yet clear whether she can continue her preferred center-right coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP).

An opinion poll published last Thursday showed 70 percent of Germans oppose U.S. military action in Syria.

Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall