Iraq Bombings: Key airbase - Britain's coral island is platform for attacks

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THE UNITED States attacks on Iraq have reminded the world of the strategic importance of a remote British island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The B-52 bombers flew from Diego Garcia, a US Navy base with a 12,000ft runway on a British-owned tropical Island.

The island is a coral atoll of about 11 square miles, enclosing a 100ft deep lagoon. In the Chagos Archipelago, it is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, a "colony" that was invented in the 1970s as British military forces left the Gulf and other strategic bases in the Indian Ocean. The island played a crucial part in the Gulf crisis in 1990-91 and in the UN intervention in Somalia in 1992.

Both British and American flags fly over the island. Like many of Britain's earlier possessions, it was acquired under a strategy of controlling the oceans; East Africa, Singapore, Calcutta and Australia are within 3,000 miles of it.

A British-US agreement of 1966, revised in 1976, makes the islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory available for "defence purposes" to both governments.

With the British Government the only one in the world to express wholehearted support for the US attacks on southern Iraq, agreement to its use was not in doubt, but the US consulted Britain anyway, if only out of politeness.

"In no way is it leased to the Americans," the Foreign Office said yesterday. "The US authorities consult us in advance through the normal diplomatic channels about using the defence facilities."

There is no town or substantial civilian population on the island. It was all removed when Britain converted the island into a military base, and relocated to Mauritius. The British presence consists of 30 Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel.

Some 900 US personnel are based on the island, along with five ships loaded with equipment for a US marine expeditionary brigade. The brigade, 15,000-strong, would fly in and leave on the ships ready to sail to any nearby trouble-spots, probably in Africa or the Middle East.

Like all American air bases, wherever they may be, the facilities are all-American, and include a bowling alley. Few British personnel have served there. "I wish I had," said one. "Have you seen the beach?"