BERLIN -- Germany handed Afghanistan's security forces control Sunday of a key military base in the country's northern province of Kunduz, where German troops spent almost a decade as part of the international effort to combat Taliban insurgents.
The handover is part of the gradual pullout of Western forces due to be completed by the end of next year.
The Kunduz base, which lies some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Kabul, shaped the German armed forces "like hardly any other place," German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said according to prepared remarks. Nowhere else since World War II have more German soldiers died in combat.
"(We) built, fought, cried and consoled, killed and fell here," de Maiziere was quoted as saying.
Some 20,000 German troops were deployed in Kunduz during a 10-year operation, and 20 of Germany's 35 combat deaths in Afghanistan occurred in the province. Another 17 died of noncombat injuries, including seven who were killed in a 2002 helicopter crash in Kabul.
For many Germans, the base is synonymous with a 2009 NATO airstrike ordered by German forces that killed 91 Afghans and wounded 11, most of them civilians.
De Maiziere made an indirect reference to the incident, which caused a political furor and the resignation of several senior German officials at the time.
"Kunduz was also the place where grave decisions were made, had to be made," he said. "It is a place where there were many deaths -- on all sides. Let us today remember all of these deaths together."
Germany, the third-largest international troop contributor in Afghanistan after the United States and Britain, plans to reduce its force levels in the country from 4,000 to about 800 by 2015. Those remaining will be stationed in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, responsible largely for training and support of Afghan troops.
The U.S. is expected to keep about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan as a residual force after 2014, but no final decision has been made.