Combat rules eased for UK pilots in Gulf get more leeway

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BRITISH AND US pilots patrolling the Iraq "no-fly" zones have had their rules of engagement changed to cope with an increasing level of attack and "daily attempts to kill them", George Robertson said.

But the Secretary of State for Defence was warned in the Commons that there was not a "blank cheque" in ordering such action. He told MPs there had been more than 100 violations of the no-fly zones since the end of Operation Desert Fox before Christmas.

He said adaptation to the rules of engagement was strictly in accordance with international law - it did not represent a change to the policy towards maintaining the no-fly zones or the purpose of the long-standing patrols.

"The tailoring of the rules of engagement merely reinforces our position, which we have made clear all along, that we will take robust and appropriate defensive measures to prevent Saddam from endangering the lives of our brave aircrew."

But Menzies Campbell, for the Liberal Democrats, said that although he supported use of force as a last resort, he did not feel able to offer Mr Robertson a "blank cheque".