BERLIN - Germany’s top court ruled Friday that the military may conduct combat operations within the country’s borders in case of a terror attack of “catastrophic proportions”, ending a post-war taboo. The Federal Constitutional Court said the Bundeswehr armed forces could deploy under strict conditions in case of an assault with the potential for scores of casualties, in a decision largely welcomed by the government. The deployment of troops in Germany is only acceptable in “states of emergency of catastrophic proportions,” 15 of the 16 judges ruled, but never “in reaction to the threat posed by demonstrating crowds”.

The use of combat weapons is only acceptable “as a last resort” and must be approved by the federal government, not simply delegated to the defence minister. Shooting down a hijacked passenger plane with civilians on board remains illegal after the ruling but fighter jets could attempt to force an aircraft to land with warning shots. The decision brings Germany broadly in line with European allies including Italy, France and Britain. The ruling marked a reversal of a decision by the same court in 2006 and was a response to complaints from two of Germany’s 16 federal states. The German government had attempted to allow more flexibility in its response to a possible terror attack in the wake of the September 11, 2001 suicide hijackings in the United States, and lend backing to police forces. But it ran into resistance from the court, which cited strict restrictions on the deployment of the military in Germany set down in the constitution in light of the abuses by troops and paramilitary forces in the Nazi period.