Gallery: Thousands welcome troops home at parade

THE DEFENCE secretary yesterday thanked the people of Colchester for their support as thousands of well-wishers gave a heroes' welcome to the returning troops.

James Hore

THE DEFENCE secretary yesterday thanked the people of Colchester for their support as thousands of well-wishers gave a heroes' welcome to the returning troops.

The town came to a standstill as hundreds of soldiers who have come back from Afghanistan marched down the High Street.

The Mayor of Colchester, Margaret Fairley-Crowe, and the borough council invited the men and women of 16 Air Assault Brigade to take part in a church service which was followed by a civic reception at the Town Hall.

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About 350 soldiers from all the Colchester-based regiments took part and were led by the Band of the Parachute Regiment.

Crowds gathered, five-deep in places, waving flags and applauding the troops as they came past.

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The civic reception was organised by Colchester Borough Council to allow locals to thank troops based in the town.

Defence Secretary John Hutton said the public's reaction to the troops had left him “very touched”.

More than 300 British servicemen and women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since the “war on terror” was launched by US President George Bush following the 9/11 attacks on New York in 2001.

More than 120 of those have been killed in Afghanistan - and many of the victims were based in Colchester.

Negotiations over the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq are under way.

But Mr Hutton would not speculate today on the future for British forces in Afghanistan.

“I'm not going to talk about the future in Afghanistan as far as UK forces are concerned. They are doing an incredibly important job.”

He said the numbers of troops deployed in Afghanistan would be influenced by the numbers withdrawn from Iraq and by the amount of support provided by the US and other Western countries.

American president-elect Barack Obama had signalled that more US forces would be sent to Afghanistan.

Mr Hutton said British forces were denying terrorist groups access to training grounds in Iraq and were in the frontline of the war against terror.

And he said the British public had to understand the need for terrorists to be confronted.

“The fight against terrorism has to be fought. British troops are in Afghanistan to make sure that terrorist groups do not get access to areas they want.”

Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, said: “We, the soldiers in the community, greatly respect and appreciate the unique relationship that exists between 16 Air Assault Brigade and Colchester, and we are extremely grateful for your continuing public rapport and recognition of the Brigade's success on operations in Afghanistan this year.

“Success tarnished only by the tragic loss of life that accompanied it.

“But public support for the brigade and its families has been outstanding and greatly appreciated by us all.”

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