Four German soldiers were killed in Afghanistan Thursday and five wounded, Berlin said, in the latest bloodshed bound to fuel opposition to the unpopular mission.
The government said in a statement that the troops were travelling from the northern city of Kunduz to Baghlan, a Taliban stronghold. The patrol came under attack with anti-tank grenades or missiles, military sources said.
German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had wrapped up a two-day visit to Afghanistan Thursday and learned of the attack when he landed in neighbouring Uzbekistan en route home.
Guttenberg said in the statement that he was "deeply saddened" by the news and that he and military chief of staff Volker Wieker would return to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif "to be with our soldiers".
The latest casualties come less than two weeks after three German soldiers were killed near Kunduz, and brings to 43 the total killed in Afghanistan since Germany's disputed deployment began in 2002.
The deaths on April 2 had prompted sharp criticism of the state of equipment at the military's disposal and the defence ministry had announced Thursday that it ordered 60 new armoured vehicles for use in Afghanistan.
Berlin signed a contract for the Eagle IV vehicles with Swiss firm Mowag, and plans to order 90 more in 2011, a spokesman for the ministry told AFP, confirming a report in the Financial Times Deutschland (FTD) daily.
Germany wants to replace around 600 of its 975 armoured vehicles currently in Afghanistan "as soon as possible" because of the worsening security situation, the FTD quoted a letter from the defence ministry to MPs as saying.
However media reports said the troops killed Thursday, in a convoy also including Belgian and Afghan soldiers, were travelling in an Eagle IV.
The 7.5-tonne Eagle IV is heavier and has thicker armour than many of the vehicles currently used by Germany's 4,500 troops. Mowag is a unit of US armaments maker General Dynamics.
Guttenberg said that he wanted 150 to 200 new armoured vehicles sent there this year, the FTD said.
According to the defence ministry website, he said that Germany would get fresh artillery in the shape of two new self-propelled howitzers, as well as anti-tank missile systems.
Germany has the third largest contingent in Afghanistan after the United States and Britain. Parliament approved another 850 soldiers in February, following US President Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 more.
The commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is to visit Germany next week and will reportedly ask Berlin to make "an important contribution" to a planned offensive against the Taliban later this year.
Source: AFP South Asian Edition