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Thursday, May 27, 1999 Published at 21:54 GMT 22:54 UK


Invincible's joyous return from Balkans

Homecoming: Sailors were diverted to the Balkans

Hundreds of families were reunited with their loved ones after the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Invincible returned home from duty in the Kosovo crisis.

Kosovo: Special Report
The 20,000-tonne ship - along with her escort destroyer HMS Newcastle - sailed into Portsmouth on Thursday after being at sea for five months.

The ships were on their way home from the Gulf in April when they were diverted to the Balkans campaign.

The diversion attracted criticism at the time as some of Invincible's own company broke ranks to question why they had been diverted when there was no obvious role for them in the Balkans.

The BBC's Steve Humphrey: The warmest of welcomes
But Armed Forces Minister Doug Henderson - who joined the crew's family and friends at Portsmouth - said the ships played a "crucial" role in the military build-up and praised the "tremendous commitment, effort and dedication" of their sailors.

[ image: Captain James Burnell-Nugent:
Captain James Burnell-Nugent: "Enormous credit to ship's company"
He said: "Invincible has been able to provide very important air defence which has been a vital part of increasing action over Kosovo."

But increased numbers of land-based aircraft had meant Invincible was no longer needed.

Invincible Captain James Burnell-Nugent said the carrier's seven Sea Harriers had flown in more than 80 missions over Iraq, enforcing the no-fly zones.

Kosovo - Military hardware
And he said they had flown more than 100 times over Kosovo, patrolling the border with Serbia and protecting the bombers in their missions.

He said: "We have not missed one single operational deadline or sortie and that is an enormous credit to the ship's company."

As they waited to be reunited with their families, many sailors said the diversion had been a blow to morale.

Naval airman Robert Callow, 25, from Canterbury, said the delay had been upsetting, but added: "We went there to do a job and you take pride in helping other countries out, especially with what's happening in Kosovo."

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