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German government distances itself from Schroeder, after ex-chancellor parties with Putin

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BERLIN - A fraternal embrace between Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder drew a wave of criticism in Berlin on Tuesday, coming as four Germans taken hostage by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine have added to already increased tensions between the two countries.

German media published pictures of Schroeder and Putin smiling together and hugging late Monday in St. Petersburg, Russia, while celebrating the birthday of the former chancellor who served from 1998 to 2005 and turned 70 earlier this month.

The German government quickly distanced itself from Schroeder, insisting the ex-chancellor acted as a private citizen.

A senior German official stressed Schroeder didn't represent the government of his successor, Angela Merkel. Merkel and Putin talk regularly one-to-one, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of rules preventing the official from being identified.

Schroeder is said to have a close relationship with Putin, once calling him a "flawless democrat."

But the embrace came as pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine hold hostage seven military monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — including three German officers and a German interpreter. Germany has decried Russia's annexation of Crimea as illegal.

Schroeder "certainly hasn't done the current government a favour with this," said Heike MacKerron, Berlin director of The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Schroeder's office told the dpa news agency he was in St. Petersburg as chairman of the shareholders' committee of gas pipeline operator Nord Stream AG — a joint project majority owned by Russia's Gazprom OAO. Nord Stream spokesman Ulrich Lissek confirmed Putin and Schroeder celebrated Schroeder's birthday following a company meeting.

Andreas Schockenhoff, a senior lawmaker in Merkel's party, told Der Spiegel magazine that Schroeder was "irresponsible" and that the pictures "play right into Putin's propaganda — and Mr. Schroeder knows that."

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