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Monday, 29 October, 2001, 16:23 GMT
Hoon plays down Ramadan reprieve
Commandos will stay in Oman for more exercises
The defence secretary has given the clearest hint yet that there will be no lengthy break in the bombing of Afghanistan during the Ramadan religious festival.

Geoff Hoon said while a pause was being looked at "very seriously", a halt to bombing during the whole of Ramadan was unlikely as the Taleban could not be given time to regroup.

He also said British troops earmarked for action in Afghanistan will not be deployed for "some time".

The commander of the Royal Marines expected to go to Afghanistan has already said his troops should not be rushed into action.

We cannot afford to allow Osama Bin Laden, or al-Qaeda or the Taleban regime to regroup knowing they will not face military action in the course of Ramadan

Geoff Hoon
Brigadier Roger Lane said he was concerned a lack of intelligence information in the region could hamper their mission.

There has been mounting criticism that after three weeks of bombing in Afghanistan, the Allies' war aims are unclear and there is no sign when the conflict is going to be over.

Critics have pressed the Allies to stop bombing targets during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month which starts on 17 November.

After the murder of 16 people at a Christian church in Pakistan, the country's foreign ministry has issued a fresh warning that continued bombing during the period of fasting could inflame anti-Western opinion in Muslim countries.

Spokesman Mohammed Riaz Khan told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It is important because I think the bombing of Afghanistan during Ramadan would certainly aggravate feelings everywhere in the Islamic world."

Regrouping fear

But supporters of Western military action maintain that Muslim generals, including the Taleban, have not always observed ceasefires during Ramadan.

Mr Hoon said: "We cannot afford to allow Osama Bin Laden, or al-Qaeda or the Taleban regime to regroup knowing they will not face military action in the course of Ramadan."

Brigadier Roger Lane
Brigadier Lane wants his troops to be totally prepared
Mr Hoon said the air strikes were having an effect on the Taleban and reiterated that the Allies would continue as long as it took to achieve their objectives.

He later told the Commons that remarks by Brigadier Lane, who warned of delays to deployment in Afghanistan, had been "deliberately taken out of context" by the media.

Mr Hoon had earlier acknowledged that it may be "some time" before ground troops deploy, but he was challenged over Brigadier Lane's comments about preparedness.

Specific operation

Mr Hoon said: "If you look carefully at what their commanding officer actually said to the Today Programme, as opposed to what he was interpreted as saying, you will see there is little doubt the Royal Marines stand ready to deal with any threat whenever that might arise.

"What he was expressing was the importance for any military operation of having members of the armed forces prepared for that specific operation."

Mr Hoon said that, having seen the Marines in action at the end of exercises in Oman, he could confirm they were at the "highest state of readiness".

The troops of 40 Commando, who will spearhead any British deployment, have just completed three months of arduous military exercises in Oman.

Necessary preparation

He said: "They will need some time to prepare for further operations.

"They are ready to go as soon as that necessary preparation has been completed.

We will be ready when suitable targets have been identified - we do not want to be too hasty

Brigadier Roger Lane
"It is necessary to prepare any soldiers that are going to go in to a demanding difficult situation for the specific task they are going to face."

He acknowledged that ground operations inside Afghanistan would depend on what intelligence was available.

Mr Hoon said: "We have always emphasised that this is an intelligence-led operation.

Suitable targets

"It is intelligence that determines when and if troops will be risked on the ground."

Speaking to the BBC, Brigadier Lane also stressed his commandos' role against the Taleban and al-Qaeda forces would be "intelligence-led".

"We will be ready when suitable targets have been identified. We do not want to be too hasty."

A total of 200 troops from 40 Commando, based in Taunton, Somerset, are on "immediate standby" but will spend at least two weeks conducting "live fire" exercises in Oman.

The BBC's Brian Barron in Oman
"There'll be no headlong rush against the Taleban"
General Wesley Clarke and Colonel Bob Stewart
discuss whether or not America should stop bombing the Taleban during Ramadan

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29 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Ground troops 'won't be rushed'
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