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Saturday, January 9, 1999 Published at 00:44 GMT

World: Middle East

RAF rolls out the dusty-red carpet for Blair

There are 12 RAF Tornado GR-1s like this in Kuwait

By Richard Ayers

British troops in Kuwait are getting a visit from UK Prime Minister Tony Blair on Saturday after his visit to South Africa.

The PM will meet Kuwaiti and diplomatic officials during the stopover, but his main aim is to thank the RAF crew and support teams stationed in Kuwait as part of Britain's continuing effort to patrol the skies over Iraq.

BBC News Online has been talking to troops on the ground about their life and role stationed in the Gulf.

The British Tornado squadron which took part in the bombing raids on Iraq last month returned to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland in the last few days. Those crews said they will now be celebrating a late Christmas with their families.

[ image:  ]
Flanked by Tornados, the plane which brought the RAF home made a celebratory fly-past before landing at its airbase. Those pilots and crew spent two months in the Gulf.

Some of the pilots who took part in the raids, although not wanting to be identified, said it was an emotional experience:

"It was a bit strange. Flying over the towns, you could see street lights and cars. It was strange to fly over a city with everyone milling about, with live ordnance on your aircraft.

"It wasn't as I expected, it was quite frightening. We crossed the border, and suddenly we were shot at. You can see all the triple A going off beneath and above you. White, green and red flashes lighting up the cockpit."

The Defence Secretary George Robertson was at Lossiemouth to welcome them home and praised their professionalism:

"I am hugely proud of them. They've done a superb job for Britain and international law. The world is a safer place as a result of the damage they inflicted."

The Lossiemouth squadron is replaced in the Gulf by crews from Norfolk. Servicemen can spend up to four months on duty in the Gulf.

There are 450 to 500 service personnel at the Ali Al-Salem base which an RAF spokesman described as "fine for its purpose, but there are very few luxuries".

But what about time off? "There isn't a lot of opportunity to get off the base because they're normally too busy working," he said "but when they do there's Kuwait City which has all the facilities of a modern city - except of course there's no alcohol!"

With the British forces focused entirely on air operations which have had a devastating effect on the Iraq military machine, he said the RAF personnel kept their minds on the job: "The guys are professionally trained to do what they are asked to do. We continue to fly and patrol the no-fly zones. We leave the political side to other people."

As for the prime minister, he can not expect red-carpet treatment:

"People are looking forward to Mr Blair's visit. There will be lots of press up there and most people will want to have their pictures taken and be seen with the prime minister. There's no party - it's all pretty businesslike - a working visit to a practical working base.

"We've had a few VIPs visit - we had George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, and Prince Andrew about six weeks ago. We get pretty used to it. We just have to smile and shake hands and brush the sand off the runway - and there's plenty of the stuff.

"Metaphorically, at least, we'll be rolling out the red carpet."

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