German army officer on trial for planning attack posing as Syrian refugee

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BERLIN, May 20 (Reuters) - A young German army officer went on trial on Thursday accused of planning to attack one or more politicians while posing as an Syrian asylum seeker to try to whip up anger against migrants.

In a case that rattled the government in Berlin when it first came to light, the man, identified as Franco A., is accused of posing under a false identity in 2017 and planning an attack he hoped would be blamed on refugees and migrants.

The prosecution says Franco A. also stole ammunition from the German military, with former justice and current Foreign Minister Heiko Maas or the parliament's Vice-President Claudia Roth seen as possible targets of an attack.

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He was arrested in Vienna in February 2017 while trying to retrieve a loaded pistol he had hidden in the airport toilets after an officers' ball, according to the investigations.

Sporting a beard and long black hair tied in a pony tail, Franco A. denied charges he had planned an attack.

"I can assure you I am not a far-right extremist," he told reporters when he entered the court building in Frankfurt. "I have a clean conscience...I have never planned any actions to the disadvantage of any person."

According to the investigations, Franco A. in 2016 submitted an asylum request under his Syrian refugee alias David Benjamin and succeeded in tricking the authorities into granting him temporary residence in Germany,

The previous year, Germany had seen an influx of 890,000 migrants mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There would have been an attack," Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defence minister then and now heads the European Commission, said at the time, describing a "horror scenario".

"There would have been a weapon at the site, with fingerprints on it. We’d have put the prints in the system and have got the match of a Syrian refugee."

According to the investigations, Franco A. posed to immigration authorities as a persecuted French-speaking refugee who spoke not a word of German.

He commuted from the Illkirch barracks in France, where he was serving in a prestigious Franco-German brigade, to attend asylum hearings, where he communicated through an interpreter.

After his arrest, swastikas and memorabilia from Germany's wartime army, the Wehrmacht, were found on the base in Illkirch, triggering a search of all German army barracks for banned Nazi memorabilia.

When the German armed forces were refounded after World War Two, they disavowed any link to the Wehrmacht, which was complicit in many Nazi atrocities. Set up in 1955, the new Bundeswehr was to be a democratic body of "citizen soldiers" with the autonomy and confidence to reject immoral orders.

The Franco-German brigade in Illkirch where Franco A. served symbolizes the post-war rapprochement between the erstwhile foes. The army officer has been since suspended and is banned from wearing a uniform.

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Reporting by Sabine Siebold, Editing by William Maclean

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