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Merkel meets rebel minister to defuse dangerous row on migrants

German Chancellor Angela Merkel began a last-ditch meeting Monday with her rebellious Interior Minister Horst Seehofer to resolve a bitter row over immigration that threatens her government.

Seehofer, a vocal critic of Merkel's open welcome to a mass influx of refugees and migrants three years ago, has threatened to resign as minister and as head of the conservative Bavarian CSU party unless they hammer out a compromise.

Seehofer quitting, or getting fired by the chancellor, could spark a cabinet walk-out of other ministers of his CSU, the traditional ally of Merkel's CDU, which would end their alliance and imperil her fragile coalition government by destroying its parliamentary majority.

While both parties sought to de-escalate the crisis, Seehofer remained defiant until the last moment, pointing to his leadership of a party that had proved its ballot-box muscle in the past.

"I'm not going to let myself be fired by a chancellor who is only chancellor because of me," he said shortly before the last-ditch meeting, in comments to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily.

Other parties and the media have slammed what they call a reckless game of chicken, with Der Spiegel commenting: "It is fair to ask: has the CSU lost its mind? In the end, the government could fall and an old, proud party could descend into ridiculousness."

The head of the third party in Merkel's fragile coalition government, Social Democrats chief Andrea Nahles, condemned Seehofer's "blackmail attempts" and charged that "the CSU is on a dangerous ego trip that is paralysing Germany and Europe".

- Crisis talks -

The deep government crisis stems from Merkel's 2015 decision to keep borders open to asylum seekers arriving from the Middle East via the Balkans, Hungary and Austria.

Since then, more than one million people have arrived; a mass influx Merkel's governments have sought to reduce by repeatedly tightening immigration and asylum laws.

Nevertheless, the anti-refugee, anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered parliament for the first time last year, leading to months of paralysis while Merkel struggled to put together a workable coalition.

The simmering row has now come to the boil again as the CSU faces a new electoral threat from the far-right AfD in October state polls.

The flashpoint issue is Seehofer's demand to order German border police to turn back asylum seekers already registered elsewhere in the EU, and his threat to do so against Merkel's wishes.

Merkel rejects such unilateral measures and last week reached an EU-level agreement instead that toughens immigration rules, as well as several bilateral deals allowing Germany to turn back many migrants.

- Uncharted waters -

Amid the heightened tensions, both traditional "sister parties" on Monday sought to step back from the brink by stressing the value of their seven-decade alliance.

"We're staying together," the head of the CDU-CSU joint parliamentary bloc, Volker Kauder, told a closed meeting of its lawmakers, earning minutes-long applause, sources said.

The "Union" of CDU and CSU have blended the southern state's beer-and-lederhosen-infused conservatism with more moderate politics, forming a centre-right force that dominated Germany for decades.

CSU chief Seehofer, 68, nonetheless appeared headed for a date with destiny, having already openly defied Merkel, with whom he has a history of quarrels.

The drama could end with Seehofer bowing out but the alliance surviving under a chancellor who lives to fight another day after another bruising battle.

The CSU's Development Minister Gerd Mueller voiced confidence that the "high value" alliance would continue and, if necessary, that it would refill Seehofer's post.

Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder too appeared to indicate a willingness to cut Seehofer loose for the sake of the coalition.

"We are ready for compromises -- you have to be in politics," he told reporters. "None of us want to call the government into question."

If talks fail and the two parties end their post-war partnership, Germany would be pitched into uncharted political waters.

Merkel could run an unstable minority government, seek a new coalition partner in the ecologist Greens or pro-business Free Democrats, or orchestrate a no-confidence vote in parliament that could trigger new elections.

That scenario scares all parties except the anti-immigration AfD which, polls suggest, could hope for further gains.

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