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Monday, 1 October, 2001, 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK
Military build-up alarms Gulf Arabs
An Egyptian fisherman watches the British frigate Monmouth pass through the Suez Canal on its way to join a task force of British ships assembling for war games off Oman
Despite rumours, officers say it is purely an exercise
By BBC Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner in Oman

As US and British warships concentrate in the region around the Gulf, local Arabs fear that a western military strike against their fellow Muslim neighbour Afghanistan is imminent.

Around 24 British Royal Navy warships, as well as 23,000 British troops, are gathering in Oman for long-planned exercises with the Omanis, known as Saif Sareea 2.

It is the biggest UK military deployment to the Middle East since the 1991 Gulf war, but British officers insist that despite the rumours, it remains purely an exercise.

Maritime assets, ie ships, do have the advantage that they can operate out at sea in international waters and there isn't the same degree of dependence on... host countries

UK Task Force Commander Rear Admiral Burnell-Nugent
On the scorching deck of HMS Illustrious, Britain's most powerful aircraft carrier, Harrier jump jets and Navy helicopters have been standing in neat lines, their fuselages glinting in the midday sun.

The ship slid quietly into Salalah harbour on Sunday, taking extra security precautions in view of last year's attack on the USS Cole in Aden, when suicide bombers blew a hole in its side and killed 17 US sailors.

The arrival of this aircraft carrier, Britain's primary "on-call" warship, has added to the military options available to the planners.

Rear-Admiral James Burnell-Nugent, the UK Task Force Commander and the most senior UK naval officer in the Middle East, insists that his ships are here purely to exercise, but he admits that they offer a degree of flexibility.

Vital option

That could be vital if Arab countries in the region, like Saudi Arabia, are unwilling to allow air strikes to be launched from their soil.

Rear Admiral Burnell-Nugent said: "Maritime assets, ie ships, do have the advantage that they can operate out at sea in international waters and there isn't the same degree of dependence on the political dimension of getting approval from host countries, and that is certainly an advantage."

Technically there's no reason why they couldn't go anywhere as long as we have air refuelling, which we'd need to do that

Air Wing Commander Jock Alexander

I asked the man in charge of the carrier's warplanes, Commander Jock Alexander, if his planes could, if called upon, reach Afghanistan.

"Technically there's no reason why they couldn't go anywhere as long as we have air refuelling, which we'd need to do that," he said.

"Flying from the ship ourselves, the range is about 250 miles (400km) but we would expect to get air-to-air refuelling and then we could go really wherever you want. So, hypothetically, yes."

So how is all this military activity being seen by Omanis, the people hosting this exercise?

Cafe discussions

In the cafes and marketplaces of Oman, the exercises have become a common topic of discussion. Why, they wonder, are so many British troops in their country at such a sensitive time?

But most Omanis can see a distinction between British troops coming here to exercise and the idea of them going into action against a possible Muslim enemy.

Egyptian fishermen watch a submarine on its way to join British ships for war games off Oman
The British submarine, Triumph, as it crosses the Suez Canal

Musallam, an Omani student said: "Omanis are used to these exercises and the presence of troops, especially here near Thumrait, where there's an airbase.

"So we're not concerned. But when it comes to Afghanistan, definitely people are worried, because the Americans have built up so many forces in the Gulf".

Arabs throughout the region are irritated that the West appears poised to strike Afghanistan without showing the world any convincing proof connecting either Osama Bin Laden or the Taleban to the attacks on America last month.


Some, like Faisal, an Omani merchant, worry that America is failing to learn the lessons from those attacks.

He says the West needs to solve Muslim grievances, such as those of the Iraqis and the Palestinians, or else the threat of terrorism will never go away.

"If it's true that Osama Bin Laden did the things that happened in New York and they catch him and kill him, and they don't look for the reason why this happened, if they don't sort out the main problems in the world, then there will be many more people like Bin Laden to follow," said Faisal.

The one thing both the Gulf Arabs and the British soldiers here have in common is uncertainty.

Nobody knows what the next step will be in America's war against terrorism, or whether the Gulf Arab states could become embroiled in a western military campaign they have no wish to join.

See also:

30 Sep 01 | Middle East
Saudi doubts over military strikes
25 Sep 01 | Middle East
Saudi Arabia warns of West-Islam split
26 Sep 01 | Middle East
Iranian leader: No help for US
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