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Monday, 17 February, 2003, 17:54 GMT
French aircraft carrier heads home
The Charles de Gaulle
The Charles de Gaulle left Toulon a fortnight ago
The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is returning to France next week, say French officials, apparently scotching suggestions that it might be heading for the Gulf.

The vessel set sail on 4 February from its Mediterranean home port of Toulon, amid speculation that its final destination might be the Gulf.

There is no question at all of us going to the Gulf

Bertrand Bonneau
French spokesman
Officially the vessel was heading for exercises off Crete, but some military analysts believed that it would subsequently join the build-up of military forces in the Gulf.

However, a senior French naval spokesman said on Monday there was "no question" of the Charles de Gaulle going to the Gulf.

"As planned, we will leave Crete again on 21 February and we should arrive back in Toulon on 25 February," said Lieutenant Commander Bertrand Bonneau of the Charles de Gaulle battle group.

"There is no question at all of us going to the Gulf," he told the French news agency AFP.

France has been leading European resistance to an early conflict with Iraq, but has been expected to eventually back a war if it believes all diplomatic routes have been exhausted.

I think the statement about it returning home might be just 'today's statement'

Ewan Southby-Tailyour
Military analyst
Its confirmation that the Charles de Gaulle was returning home appeared to suggest that even in the medium future, it saw no place for conflict.

"I assumed the Charles de Gaulle would steam on to the Gulf," said Ewan Southby-Tailyour, editor of Jane's Amphibious and Special Forces.

"I think the statement about it returning home might be just "today's statement".

"It is almost certainly directed at the Americans, to try to add credence to their political statement in the UN Security Council.

"They are trying to show the US they really don't believe we should be going to war yet."

The French Government had not confirmed speculation that the Crete exercises would lead on to a Gulf deployment, but the Defence Ministry had stressed that the Charles de Gaulle was set for any mission.

"When a ship sails, it goes battle-ready - in terms of its crew, its weaponry and its aircraft, in times of peace or crisis," said spokesman Christophe Prazuck at the time the vessel set sail.

"A ship like the Charles de Gaulle is not half-operation, or giving an illusion of being operational. It is totally operational."

The Charles de Gaulle's three weeks of exercises have included some with a US aircraft carrier, the Harry S Truman, deployed in the Mediterranean ahead of a possible war.

The exercises have taken place between Sicily and Crete, with the Charles de Gaulle based at Souda Bay on Crete, about 250 kilometres (150 miles) south of Athens.

Fighting power

If, as analysts suspect, the Charles de Gaulle eventually turns round once again and sails back towards the Gulf, it will take around two days' extra sailing to get back to the eastern Mediterranean.

From there - or from closer to the Gulf - the French vessel could be used to deploy French aircraft to join any war on Iraq.

Around 40 aircraft are on board, including fighter jets and reconnaissance planes.

The nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle has been beset by technical problems over the years, but is a potent symbol of French military power.

It returned in July 2002 from a seven-month mission in the Indian Ocean as part of the war against terror.

Although France is still strongly backing extended weapons inspections, it sees war as a last resort, and is thought to fear being sidelined militarily if war does finally come.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"The Iraq crisis has indeed torn Europe apart"
Lord Robertson, Nato Secretary General
"There were serious disagreements which had to be ironed out"
Herve Mariton, French MP
"What President Chirac expresses is the vision France has of the international situation"

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See also:

21 Nov 01 | Europe
17 Feb 03 | Europe
17 Feb 03 | Middle East
17 Feb 03 | Middle East
16 Feb 03 | Americas
17 Feb 03 | Europe
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