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Monday, June 14, 1999 Published at 05:56 GMT 06:56 UK


Gurkhas: A force to be reckoned with

Gurkhas enter Kosovo: 'Wherever we go there will be peace'

"Better to die than be a coward" - the motto of the world famous Gurkha soldiers.

Gurkhas talk about their mission in Kosovo
It is surely no coincidence that the British Army chose these fearsome warriors from Nepal to spearhead a multinational force for Kosovo.

About 660 men from the 1st Battalion of Royal Gurkha Rifles, together with the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, form the 5 Airborne Brigade, which numbers around 2,000 men.

Their role in Operation Joint Guardian is to secure a path into the province for the heavy armour of the King's Royal Hussars and the Irish Guards.

In the vanguard

Brits in Balkans
"The Gurkhas are in the vanguard of any move into Kosovo," a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence told BBC News Online.

"They were flown into Kosovo by Chinook and Puma helicopters on Saturday, where they established a route into Pristina by securing the main road."

While they awaited their orders, the Gurkhas trained with the Paras at Petrovac in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

[ image: Gurkhas board a Chinook to move deeper into Kosovo]
Gurkhas board a Chinook to move deeper into Kosovo
They are equipped with modern SA80 rifles and are renowned as natural marksmen. But they still carry into battle their traditional weapon - an 18-inch long curved knife known as the kukri.

In times past, it was said that once a kukri was drawn in battle, it had to "taste blood" - if not, its owner had to cut himself before returning it to its sheath.

Now, it is used mainly for cooking, but one Gurkha in Macedonia told reporters: "When the ammunition runs out we still use them."

"We don't expect to use them, but we would not be Gurkhas without them," said 25-year-old Tirtha Ghale.

Single-handed hero

In the 185 years they have served in the British Army, the Gurkhas have won 26 Victoria Crosses, more than any other single group in the army.

Kosovo: Special Report
Havildar Lachhiman Gurung won his VC by preventing the escape of Japanese forces in Burma in 1945, literally single-handedly.

He threw back three hand-grenades thrown into his trench - the third of which blew off his right hand.

In spite of his wounds, he carried on fighting, firing and re-loading his rifle with his left hand for four hours.

Loyal fighters

The British first realised the potential of these fearsome warriors at the height of their empire-building in the last century.

After suffering heavy casualties in the invasion of Nepal, the British East India Company signed a hasty peace deal in 1815, which also allowed it to recruit from the ranks of the former enemy.

[ image: Lethal weapon: The traditional
Lethal weapon: The traditional "kukri"
Since then, the Gurkhas have loyally fought for the British all over the world, and their British officers are taught the Gurkhali language.

More than 200,000 fought in the two world wars, with 14,000 killed in engagements in France, the Middle East, Gallipoli, Italy, Greece and South East Asia.

In the past 50 years, they have served in Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo, Cyprus and the Falklands.

With deep defence cuts, their numbers have been reduced to 3,600 from a World War II peak of 112,000 men.

After being stationed in Malaya - as it was then known - and Hong Kong, the Gurkhas are now based at Church Crookham in the English county of Hampshire.

Only the toughest

The selection process has been described as one of the toughest in the world and is fiercely contested.

Kosovo - Military hardware
Young hopefuls have to run uphill for 40 minutes carrying a wicker basket on their back filled with rocks weighing 70lbs.

This year, 36,000 young would-be Gurkhas competed for just 230 places.

Hardly surprising then that Gurkha soldiers on their way to the Balkans relish the chance to show off their prowess.

"We are looking forward to this new challenge," said one infantryman.

Another said: "We are the fighting force, but wherever we go there will be peace. It is our history."

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