Volkswagen's top US executive is stepping down immediately

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WASHINGTON, March 9 (Reuters) - Volkswagen AG's top U.S. executive is stepping down nearly six months after the German automaker admitted to installing software to allow 580,000 diesel U.S. vehicles to emit excess emissions, the company said on Wednesday.

Michael Horn, who has been president and chief executive officer of Volkswagen of America since 2014, is leaving by mutual agreement "to pursue other opportunities effective immediately," VW said.

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Horn could not immediately be reached. A lawyer for Horn did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The German automaker said on an interim basis, Hinrich J. Woebcken, who was recently named the new head of the North American Region and chairman of Volkswagen Group of America, will assume Horn's role.

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Horn's departure comes as VW continues to negotiate with California, the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency on possible fixes or buybacks for the diesel vehicles. It faces a March 24 deadline to tell a federal judge whether it has an acceptable fix.

A top California official told state lawmakers Tuesday that VW may only be able to mount a partial fix and may have to pay to mitigate the harm caused by allowing vehicles to remain on the road.

During the initial response to the crisis, Horn was VW's public face in the United States, apologizing days after the scandal became public and testifying before Congress.

"Let's be clear about this: our company was dishonest - with the EPA and the California Air Resources Board - and with all of you. And in my German words: We totally screwed up. We must fix those cars," Horn said in New York on Sept. 21.

In October, Horn told a U.S. House of Representatives panel that VW's supervisory board and top leadership did not intentionally order the cheating, but said it was the work of a few individuals. Asked by Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, if it made sense that a company like VW could allow a fraud to go on for seven years without top leaders knowing, Horn was blunt.

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"I agree it is very hard to believe," he said. "Some people made the wrong decisions."

Horn told Congress he had no knowledge of the cheating.

He became CEO based at VW's U.S. headquarters in Herndon, Virginia following the resignation of his predecessor, Jonathan Browning who abruptly resigned after VW brand sales fell in 2013. Sales fell despite an aggressive plan announced in 2008 by VW to triple sales in 10 years. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Reese and Alistair Bell)

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