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Thursday, 4 October, 2001, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
BBC Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner
The BBC's Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner is in Oman where 24 British Royal Navy warships as well as 23,000 British troops are gathering. He answered a selection of your questions on the military build-up in the gulf.
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In the Gulf region there is now the largest mobilisation of Royal Navy ships in foreign seas since the Falklands conflict of 1982.
The British ships - including the nuclear submarine, HMS Triumph - are taking part in the long-planned series of war games.
It's thought that some of the 23,000 British troops gathering in Oman could be part of US-led military action against Afghanistan.
The BBC's Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner is in Oman. He answered your questions in a live forum on Thursday 4th October.
But morale is good. Those who know that they are perhaps short-listed to go to Afghanistan or nearby if the balloon goes up, as it were, they are quite excited about it. This is what they are trained for so they are not afraid - or if they are, they are not saying it.
But let's face it, everybody knows that if America carries out military action, Britain is going to take part. The sort of assets, as military people like to call it, that could be used are things like the HMS Illustrious, the aircraft carrier, which is steaming off the coast of Oman just behind me here on the Indian Ocean. Possibly some of the Royal Marine Commandoes could be used as sort of shock troops in some kind of operation in Afghanistan. But it is important to distinguish between these two words - exercise and operation. This at the moment remains an exercise, it is not yet an operation - it will become that if America decides to go in, Britain will help her and almost certainly some specialised troops and units deployed here in Oman may well assist them. But I think it is important to say, Oman is unlikely to be used as a springboard for military action.
Let me just deal with the Navy first all. As far as the HMS Illustrious is concerned - Britain's aircraft carrier - it has taken security precautions when it came into Salalah Harbour just behind me here. They won't disclose exactly what those precautions are. But one thing, for example, that it's done is - when it is sailing at night, it has rigged up its lights in such a way that it looks like a cargo vessel rather than an aircraft carrier. When it steamed into port and when it steamed out, it moved extremely quickly, flanked by other British warships.
On land, there is local force protection provided by, what's called the RAF regiment. Their job is to patrol the airfields. There are also guards out on the desert camp where the British are. So quite difficult for anybody to get through - but of course, who knows.
Now in terms of local governments, what are they doing to deal with the Islamists? The Yemenis have rounded up dozens of suspected sympathisers of Osama Bin Laden. Yemen has a problem with law and order - there is no question about that. There are an estimated 1,000 sympathisers of Osama Bin Laden - perhaps more - in Yemen, many of whom are activists. You may remember that about 3 years ago, some Islamist extremist kidnapped 16 Western tourists in Yemen and four of those tourists were then killed in a shoot-out. Yemen is very keen to try and stop that kind of thing happening again. So it basically rounded up loads of people and it is investigating various others.
Saudi Arabia has done the same thing - they are very secretive about it. In the UAE and Oman - they don't have such a violent problem - they've been looking into bank accounts, and possible sources of funding for organisations such as Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda network. They may well be closing down some of those sources - choking off possibly even charitable foundations who might be channelling money to organisations such as his.
Britain has also got a lot of reconnaissance aircraft. It's got maritime reconnaissance that perhaps isn't so relevant at the moment. But if there were to be repercussions and some kind of problem in the Gulf States then British Forces would perhaps need to keep an eye on what's going on here. So in military terms - yes, it does matter. Of course the sizes are small - Britain is a small country - it's tried to punch above its weight. It's got a seat on the UN - some people think that it's perhaps too small to have that seat. But Britain does have a military contribution to play in the military fight against terrorism.
There is the risk here that if there is so much speculation in the media about what support these Gulf States are going to give logistically to America and Britain in their military campaign to flush out or crush the Taleban or al Qaeda or whoever, then it is possible that these Gulf States here could be so embarrassed by this that they say - ok enough, we don't like the way this is going, our own population is getting restless, time to close it all down, you are not going to be able to do anything here. There is that risk and the British military are acutely aware of that. They have tried to give the Press a free hand but there could well come a stage where they will say - you are going too far guys, you're reading too much into this, you're messing it up for the governments concerned.
Other Nato nations in Europe will probably be called upon on an individual basis to provide specialist units. If, for example, there is a perceived threat of chemical weapons involved in this - don't forget we are not talking about something that's going to be just next week - if it is next week - we are talking about a campaign on many levels, not just military, diplomatic, financial, intelligence gathering - this could go on for years. Those individual European nations will be asked to provide specialist support - for example, mobile decontamination units - if there is perceived to be a poison gas attack or something like that.
There are reports that Australian special forces are operating alongside Britain and the US in Afghanistan. I can't confirm that but it doesn't surprise me if that's true.
Now in terms of fending off immediate threats from incoming missiles - you rightly point out, the threat from Exocets. One of the things that both the Royal Navy in Britain and the US Navy has installed are these bizarre looking cones - with this huge six-barrelled machine gun coming out of it. This is like an incredibly fast high-powered machine gun that fires a stream - like a wall - of bullets against an incoming missile. It's a last ditch defence - it fires something incredible like 100 rounds a second to obliterate an incoming missile. But long before that missile gets close to any of Britain's warships they would hope that their airborne reconnaissance aircraft, their submarines, their helicopters, the various warships surrounding the flagship carrier say - they would hope that those warships were able to give them advance warning and deal with any threat.
It is interesting that the US Navy prides itself on being able to surround and protect its warships and yet a simple dingy a year ago in Aden Harbour in Yemen was able to draw up alongside a billion dollar warship, blow a hole in its side and kill 17 sailors. That was a salutary lesson to the Americans and its one that is terrifying the British to.
So America would be very ill-advised to attack an Arab nation at the moment. The nation in question is Afghanistan, which is not an Arab nation - they are mainly Pashtu speaking. Yes, in a way the West is taking a risk but it feels that the massive casualty toll from the attacks on September 11th mean that they are now prepared to take risks far more than they were before that and they will take whatever flak is coming to, as they put it, root out the evil of terrorism.
But I have to say I am quite impressed - I have been following events in the Middle East for years - and a lot of American policy in the Middle East is quite insensitive to Arab and Muslim feelings. I will go on record for saying that - they tend to listen and then ignore. This time, the US administration seems to be getting it right - you have President Bush standing up and quoting from the Quoran and visiting a Muslim centre. Colin Powell is being very sensitive to Arab and Muslim sensitivities. They are not going to force the Saudis, for example, to take part in any military action that would embarrass the Saudi Government. So both the US and Britain are trying to minimise any possible backlash. Of course, all of that could go upside down if an attack on Afghanistan results in large numbers of Muslim casualties.
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