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Germany may reassess intelligence ties with Austria over police raids

BERLIN/VIENNA (Reuters) - Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence agency will have to reassess its ties with Austria if information it passed on was seized during police raids on its Austrian counterpart, the Interior Ministry in Berlin said.

The statement, made on Tuesday, is the first public indication that the case, which has set off a political storm in Austria, could also harm the country’s access to foreign intelligence.

Prosecutors have placed five employees at Austria’s BVT intelligence agency under investigation based on accusations they failed to delete sensitive information and may have intended to pass it on.

But the case has prompted accusations by the opposition of a purge at the BVT by the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which controls the Interior Ministry.

The German agency sought clarification from the BVT “on whether and if so what BfV information is affected” by the raids, the Interior Ministry in Berlin said in a written response to a lawmaker from the leftist Linke party, Andrej Hunko.

“An answer from the BVT is still pending. If BfV information actually did leak, there will have to be a new assessment of how cooperation with the BVT can be carried out in future,” it added in the letter dated March 20, which Hunko posted on his website.

As the junior coalition partner in Austria’s government, the FPO also controls the defense ministry and oversees much of the security and intelligence apparatus, including the BVT.

Interior Minister Herbert Kickl says the case has been handled properly, but questions have persisted, including why the raids were carried out by police not normally tasked with such operations -- a street-crime unit headed by an FPO town councillor.

Storage devices including hard drives were seized during raids on the homes of at least one witness as well as the five accused, who include BVT head Peter Gridling.

The government has not named the other suspects and their political affiliations remain unclear. Until the FPO took it over three months ago, the Interior Ministry had long been controlled by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives.

Gridling told the Tiroler Tageszeitung newspaper last week he did not know what he was accused of and was unaware of having done anything wrong.

The case has stoked fears about intelligence being available to the FPO, which has ties with some right-wing groups monitored by the BVT as well as to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

The opposition Social Democrats said on Tuesday they would launch a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the case.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Francois Murphy in Vienna; writing by Francois Murphy; editing by John Stonestreet