Troops prepare to go in to Balkans

PUBLISHED: 15:58 26 July 2001 | UPDATED: 10:23 03 March 2010

SHOCK troops based at Wattisham airfield are gearing up in readiness to fly into the troubled Balkan hotspot of Macedonia.

SHOCK troops based at Wattisham airfield are gearing up in readiness to fly into the troubled Balkan hotspot of Macedonia.

As fighting continues between Macedonian government forces and Albanian nationalist guerrillas, detachments of the Army's helicopter fliers, ground crew and engineers are keeping an anxious eye on the situation as they await orders at the airbase.

Politicians are waiting for a peace deal to be sealed before sending in UK forces as part of a Nato peacekeeping expedition.

Following a reopening of hostilities between the two warring sides – which led this week to attacks on the British embassy by angry Macedonian mobs – Nato commanders are drawing up plans to deploy only when a truce has been agreed.

Britain's newest rapid reaction force, the 16 Air Assault Brigade in which units based at Wattisham play a crucial part, would be sent in to play a leading role in keeping the peace.

Exact numbers of troops or precise roles have not been decided – but it is expected a 4,000-strong Nato force would contain around 1,000 British servicemen. Peacekeeping duties would involve disarming the Albanian fighters and patrolling dividing lines between the two opposing forces.

The Ministry of Defence has revealed so far 150 soldiers will be committed to this latest mission in which they will form headquarters for the multinational force.

Preparations are now underway for Wattisham's servicemen to become involved – if they are needed.

A spokesman for the MOD told the Star: "If there is going to be 16 Air Assault Brigade deployment, Wattisham troops would form part of that. We don't know when they will be deployed but they will be deployed only in a benign environment."

One of the commanders on the base, Lt Col David Turner, commanding officer of 4 Regt, Army Air Corps, said the decision to go in would be political and not a military one.

"The military, of course, have a plan but it has to be sanctioned and executed at a political level," he said, stressing that stability in Macedonia was important to keep supply routes open to UN peacekeepers in neighbouring Kosovo.

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