* Germany already has 5,000 troops in Afghanistan
* NATO AWACS operation based in Germany
BERLIN, March 23 (Reuters) - Germany’s cabinet is due to approve on Wednesday sending troops to crew NATO surveillance aircraft over Afghanistan, but will withdraw AWACS staff from the Mediterrranean to avoid military involvement in Libya.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet will endorse the dispatch of up to 300 German AWACS troops to Afghanistan, government sources said, under a policy of easing the burden on NATO while refusing to participate in strikes on Libya.
The government has come under fire at home for breaking ranks with NATO allies the United States, France and Britain when it abstained last week in a U.N. Security Council resolution authorising the Libyan action.
Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere confirmed that Germans would be withdrawn from AWACS reconnaissance aircraft over the Mediterranean but denied this was a direct exchange.
De Maiziere restated Berlin’s reservations about the Libyan mission. Taking part in AWACS operations over the Mediterranean — which would aid strikes on Libya — would require a mandate from the German parliament.
“If we moved from pure reconnaissance to possible participation in operational deployments, then we would need a mandate from the Bundestag. We don’t want to seek this because we’re not participating in this military action,” he told Deutschlandfunk radio.
NATO’s AWACS operation is based in Germany and about a third of the personnel are German. Deployment to Afghanistan, where Berlin already has about 5,000 troops, aims to free up U.S. AWACS crews there so that they can move to the Mediterranean.
“This is material relief for NATO and a political sign of our solidarity with the alliance,” said de Maiziere, a close ally of Merkel and fellow Christian Democrat (CDU).
The CDU faces a tough fight to hold on to Baden-Wuerttemberg, one of Germany’s biggest states, in elections on Sunday. Since World War Two Germans have been traditionally wary of foreign military operations and all such missions require approval from the Bundestag.
writing by David Stamp; editing by Ralph Boulton