MP calls for protest march ban

THE MP of Colchester, a proud garrison town, has slammed a proposed anti-war protest with empty coffins as “sickening'' amid growing anger over the plans.

James Hore

THE MP of Colchester, a proud garrison town, has slammed a proposed anti-war protest with empty coffins as “sickening'' amid growing anger over the plans.

Bob Russell, the Colchester MP, revealed he had been contacted by the widow of a soldier from his town deeply upset by the march set to go through Wootton Bassett.

He has now joined calls on the Government to ban the march through the Wiltshire town which is synonymous with the sight of hearses carrying the bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and flown into nearby RAF Lyneham.

Mr Russell said hearses carrying soldiers from the Colchester-based 16 Air Assault Brigade who lost their lives in Helmand Province had travelled the route in 2008.

He said: “It is appalling that anyone should even think of making a protest of this sort.

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“I have been contacted by one of the young war widows of a Colchester soldier who is deeply upset.

“It may be just a stunt, but it is a sickening one which has no place in the minds of all decent people.

“I am delighted that the mainstream Muslim community, including the Wiltshire Islamic Cultural Centre, have unreservedly condemned the proposed protest march and have called on the organisers not to proceed.”

Those behind the proposed march are a small group of extremists known as Islam4UK.

Mr Russell added: “They are not representative of British Muslims. It is important that a whole religion is not blamed because of the antics of a handful of extremists. Sadly, history tells us that all religions have experienced extremists.”

The anger grew as an Essex-based soldier killed last month was repatriated through Wootton Bassett yesterday.

The Union flag-draped coffins carrying Rifleman Aidan Howell and Sapper David Watson were driven through the town.

Sapper Watson, 23, of Essex-based 33 Engineer Regiment - a bomb disposal expert - and Rifleman Howell, 19, of 3rd Battalion the Rifles, were killed in Afghanistan in the last week of December.

Sapper Watson was brought up in Whickham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and died of wounds sustained in a blast caused by an improvised explosive device on New Year's Eve near Patrol Base Blenheim in the Sangin region of Helmand province.

Rifleman Howell, who was born in Sidcup died after an explosion near Forward Operating Base Zeebrugge in the Kajaki area of Helmand province on December 28.

Their repatriation came as Islam4UK said it would apply to Wiltshire Police "in the next few days" to march.

Anjem Choudary, leader of the extremist group, said it was "full steam ahead' for the march campaigning for the withdrawal of British troops.

A date for the event, featuring 500 people carrying symbolic coffins, has not been set but it will not coincide with a repatriation.

MPs from across the Commons have signed a motion urging action by the Home Secretary and local authorities to prevent the march, which they said would be “a gross mark of disrespect'” to soldiers who have died or been injured.

But Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), said he would be “surprised'” if senior officers in Wiltshire seek to block the protest because any group has a right to march even if their views are “unpleasant and offensive''.

He said: “Our view is we will have to deal with it, people have a right to march. People might not like it but that is the law.''

“It can be the case that if you ban something it becomes more popular to turn up to. You then have a mass unlawful protest.

“It will be one that requires pretty clear thinking, but it is far too early really because all we have is the threat of a march.”