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Merkel urges explanation over 'grave' US spy claims

German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a press conference at the end of the second and last day of an European Union (EU) Council meeting at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on October 25, 2013
German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a press conference at the end of the second and last day of an European Union (EU) Council meeting at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on October 25, 2013

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Monday for answers over "grave" US spying accusations which she said were testing transatlantic ties, including fledgling trade talks.

Ahead of a special debate on snooping by US intelligence on German soil which included the suspected tapping of her mobile phone, Merkel addressed the US espionage claims at the start of a speech to parliament.

"The transatlantic relationship and therefore also the negotiations for a free-trade agreement are presently without doubt being put to the test by the remaining accusations against the US and the million-fold collection of data," Merkel told the Bundestag lower house.

"The accusations are grave. They must be explained and, more important still for the future, new trust must be built," she said to applause.

Merkel, who went on to speak about EU partnerships with Eastern European nations, did not directly mention the surveillance of her phone.

But she stressed that the relationship with the United States was of "paramount" importance for Germany and Europe, and the "common experiences, values and interests" shared by Berlin and Washington.

With US President Barack Obama's June visit to Berlin still fresh in many minds, lawmakers called a special parliamentary debate on the revelations that have put Washington in the firing line and strained diplomatic ties, also clouding EU-US talks on what would be the world's biggest free-trade accord.

Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich criticised Washington's intelligence policy since the first revelations from leaked US National Security Agency (NSA) documents came to light. "The silence leads to there being all sorts of conspiracy theories," he lamented.

'Ducking the issue, running scared'

Calls were again heard for Germany to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who is behind the leaks that have fed near-daily media reports for months and is wanted in the United States on criminal charges.

Snowden viewed as 'hero'

Friedrich has said the government is studying the possibility of questioning Snowden in Russia where he has temporary asylum, while Berlin has already rejected an asylum bid from him.

The government, accused of having played down the espionage claims before September elections and until Merkel herself became a target, faced criticism from opposition Green and far-left Linke MPs for having failed to stand up to Washington.

"One doesn't forge a friendship by ducking the issue and running scared," the Linke's parliamentary group leader Gregor Gysi said, also calling for Snowden to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

"Germany is only sovereign if it listens to Mr Snowden, protects, grants him asylum and organises his safe residence," he said.

Hans-Christian Stroebele, a veteran Greens party MP who recently met Snowden in Russia, raised chuckles when he took to the podium asking the chancellor if she had considered thanking the US fugitive.

"After all, we owe it to him and his brave disclosure that your mobile phone probably isn't currently being tapped," he said.

He earlier wrote in a New York Times editorial that granting Snowden asylum would not be about "revenge" for spying but a move "based on our fundamental values -- and a moral duty".

A poll showed earlier this month that Germans' trust in the United States had taken a battering in the wake of the spy revelations, with 61 percent saying Washington could not be trusted.

US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged in a German newspaper that "tensions" had arisen between Berlin and Washington over the revelations.

Germans' anger that emails, phone calls, web searches and other data may have been hoovered up under the NSA programme overshadowed Obama's long-awaited trip to Berlin.

With memories of the methods employed by the Nazis and East Germany's communist regime still very much alive, Germans are especially sensitive to the issue of state surveillance.

But a revelation last month that Merkel's communications were also monitored prompted her to confront Obama by phone, followed, in a highly unusual move, by the US ambassador to Berlin being summoned.

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