The main opposition leader agreed Saturday that Germany could send warplanes to protect the U.N. mission in Bosnia, clearing the last political hurdle to putting German troops in a combat situation for the first time since World War II.

The Social Democratic leader, Rudolf Scharping, said in an interview on SAT-1 television that Germany couldn't stay on the sidelines if NATO decided to strengthen its protection for the humanitarian effort in Bosnia."We want the humanitarian measures to be carried out, and if we must offer protection to do that, then we must," Scharping said.

Scharping's comments marked a turnabout for the Social Democrats, who have opposed any combat role for Germany in the Balkans and are generally leery of German military activity outside the borders of NATO.

Kohl's government agreed in principle Friday to offer Tornado warjets to NATO. They would either help protect the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeeprs from Bosnia or escort aid flights, should NATO and the United Nations decide to toughen the defenses of the humanitarian mission.

Any such mission must be approved by parliament. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose conservative coalition has a slim majority, needs consensus to take Germany over a threshhold that few could have imagined crossing even a year ago.