German WWI graves smashed in France on peace anniversary

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Media captionThe BBC's Steve Evans says the motive behind the desecration is unclear

The graves of 40 German soldiers who died during World War I have been vandalised at a military cemetery in northern France, officials say.

Wooden crosses were pulled up from the Saint-Etienne-a-Arnes cemetery and some were later used for a camp fire.

French President Francois Hollande condemned the act, saying nothing would change French friendship with Germany.

He was meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mark the 50th anniversary of the formal post-war reconciliation.

The two leaders were attending the main ceremony in the city of Reims, about 40km (25 miles) east of where the grave attack happened.

'Important friendship'

Image caption The French and German leaders disagree on the best way out of the eurozone debt crisis

The German soldiers whose graves were vandalised were all aged between 14 and 18, French officials said.

"An inquiry is under way and all means are being employed to find those responsible for this terrible desecration," the interior ministry said in a statement.

A spokesman at the local prefecture said it was not immediately clear whether the it was a "determined action" or the work of "irresponsible people", the AFP news agency reports.

The spokesman added that there was no sign of any political message after the attack - just hours before Mr Hollande and Mrs Merkel met in Reims' imposing cathedral.

Mr Hollande denounced the desecration, while reaching out to Mrs Merkel.

"No obscure force ... can alter the deep Franco-German friendship," he said.

"Madam Chancellor, I propose from our side to open and even cross a new threshold together that will lead to even closer friendship between our two nations."

Mrs Merkel urged Mr Hollande and other European leaders to take on the "Herculean task" of completing economic and monetary union at a political level.

"Europe is more than just a currency, and the Franco-German relationship is vital in this regard," she said.

The reconciliation between the former foes was symbolically achieved during the 1962 meeting between the then leaders of France and Germany, Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer.

But currently the Franco-German friendship is fraught with difficulties, the BBC's Steve Evans in Berlin reports.

France and Germany disagree on economics, with President Hollande balancing budgets by raising taxes on the wealthy and Chancellor Merkel seeing tighter spending as important, our correspondent adds.

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