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Top prosecutor fired amid controversy over German treason probe

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Ralf Stockhoff/dpa via AP

(Read caption) Germany's chief federal prosecutor Harald Range speaks to journalists in Karlsruhe, Germany, Tuesday Aug. 4, 2015. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas says he will request the dismissal and retirement of chief federal prosecutor Harald Range. Maas said Tuesday he made the decision after consultations with Chancellor Angela Merkel's office. The Justice Ministry has questioned Range's decision to open a treason investigation against two journalists who had reported that Germany's domestic spy agency plans to expand surveillance of online communication.

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A treason investigation against two German journalists claimed its first casualty Tuesday – the country's top prosecutor who ordered the probe.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas announced he was seeking the dismissal of Harald Range hours after the chief federal prosecutor accused the government of interfering in his investigation.

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Maas said he made the decision in consultation with Chancellor Angela Merkel's office, indicating that the sacking was approved at the highest level.

The Justice Ministry had questioned Range's decision to open the investigation against two journalists from the website Netzpolitik.org who had reported thatGermany's domestic spy agency plans to expand surveillance of online communication.

The treason probe was widely criticized and regarded as an embarrassment to the government. Senior officials stressed in recent days that Germany is committed to protecting press freedom.

In an unusual outburst against his superior, Range said earlier Tuesday that the justice ministry had ordered him to withdraw the conclusion of an independent expert's report that had determined that the documents the journalists had received from an unidentified source were "state secrets" – one requirement for a treason case.

Maas said Range's claim that he was ordered to withdraw the expert opinion was false. He said the decision to do so was taken by both of them Friday and Range's statement Tuesday gave the public a false impression.

News of the probe against the two journalists emerged last week. It followed a criminal complaint filed by the spy agency that also targets the unidentified source of the leaked documents.

Range, who is 67 and was due to retire early next year, is likely to be succeeded by Munich federal prosecutor Peter Frank, who will have to decide whether to continue the investigation.

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Associated Press writers Geir Moulson and Kirsten Grieshaber contributed to this report.