German defence minister resigns


German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned today after admitting to copying part of a doctoral dissertation, depriving chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives of one of their brightest stars.

Mr Guttenberg was the most popular member of chancellor Merkel's cabinet and his loss is a severe blow to her Christian Democrats (CDU), who were crushed in a vote in Hamburg last month and must fight three more state elections this month.

Ms Merkel appeared surprised by Mr Guttenberg's decision. She interrupted a visit to a trade fair in Hanover and went into her car to talk on the phone shortly before the news broke in Berlin. She made no comment to reporters accompanying her.

"I was always ready to fight but I've reached the limit of my powers," Mr Guttenberg (39) told journalists in a hastily arranged briefing at the Defence Ministry.

"I informed the chancellor in a very friendly conversation that I'm resigning from political offices and requested to be relieved. It's the most painful step of my life," added Mr Guttenberg, who had often been mentioned as a future chancellor.

"I'm not only leaving because of my error-filled doctorate, although I can understand this would be reason enough for many in the academic community. The reason is because of the question whether I can still live up to the highest expectations I put on myself."

Mr Guttenberg had been accused of copying parts of the dissertation without correct attribution, and has been stripped of his doctorate.

At first he rejected the charges as "fanciful". Later, after scores more copied passages were discovered, he said he had made mistakes and acknowledged that his dissertation was flawed, although he has not admitted to plagiarism.

The affair has dominated headlines and television chat shows for the last week, with growing numbers calling for him to quit.

Ms Merkel had not wavered in her backing for Mr Guttenberg. Opposition leaders said she feared that firing him would cost her support among conservative voters, especially in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, a conservative bastion in the southwest that polls suggest her party could lose on March 27th.

"It's a huge embarrassment for Merkel," said Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "It makes her look bad because she should have known he wouldn't survive this. She backed him even though she knew how fragile it all was."

It was the second awkward resignation of a Merkel ally in recent weeks. Bundesbank

President Axel Weber, seen as a top contender to lead the European Central Bank, ruled himself out of that job and said he would quit the German central bank.

Replacing Mr Guttenberg will not be easy for Ms Merkel. His party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party, will insist on keeping defence or another major ministry. Analysts said it could lead to a broader cabinet reshuffle.

Ms Merkel's spokesman said the chancellor would comment on Mr Guttenberg's resignation later today.

The aristocratic Mr Guttenberg has long been the most popular minister in Ms Merkel's cabinet. But his popularity was based on a carefully nurtured image for honesty and integrity.