The Paras fight on with apparent impunity

Fear of squaddies' late-night violence has driven Aldershot locals from their town centre.
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Most Aldershot locals fear the sort of trouble which left James McGuire with two broken arms and broken ribs after a confrontation with four drunken paratroopers.

They avoid the town centre at night. Squaddie pubs are shunned and groups of young men are given a wide berth after dark.

Local police insist that the problem of drunken violence is no worse in Aldershot than in many other towns and point to just 70 military personnel out of 6,000 arrested in the district last year.

But the dominance of the young, hard-drinking, loutish soldier after pub closing time has scared civilians out of their town centre.

Last month, McDonald's decided it had had enough and stopped opening after 8pm. The change from midnight closing followed a trial period of an 11pm finish.

"We had a lot of hassle," Don, the floor manager, said. "When they are on their own they are friendly and polite, but when they are together as a group, you know there is going to be trouble. It even happens on Saturday afternoons in kids' parties."

The traditional link between alcohol and violence is the common theme of local experience of the Paras' finest.

Although conflict has been a recurrent problem during Aldershot's 150-year military history, many believe it is now unacceptable.

Ian Pike, 26, had just been to see The Flintstones at Aldershot's cinema last year and was eating in an Indian restaurant at about 10.30pm.

"I was taking my wife out for a nice meal," he said. "They kept walking past, smashing the door open and yelling: `Black bastards.' There was a group of about five of them who kept doing it as they went between the wine bar and the pub.

"They are always showing off. It's `we come out fighting for the country. We are soldiers'."

Catherine Suddaby, 45, agrees with Julian Critchley, MP for Aldershot, when he said that respectable mothers will not let their daughters go near the town centre at night. "I don't let Michelle come into town on her own," she said. "There are always problems from the soldiers. Most of the locals don't like them."

Michelle, 17, has no need for enforcement of the parental ban. Aldershot town centre is the last place she would want to be on a Saturday night.

"They just see people who aren't soldiers and start on them," she said. "I don't go anywhere near Aldershot. The pubs are full of squaddies."

Darren Mitchell, Michelle's brother, was beaten up by a group of soldiers on a train when returning home from his girlfriend's house.

"They had been kicked out of first class by the guard," his mother said. "They saw he was wearing desert boots and said: `No one but the Paras has the right to wear desert boots.' They then punched him, knocked him out and took his boots.

"We went to the police but they never found the soldiers. The police said: `We can go to every street corner in Aldershot and there would be five or six Paras. They all look the same'."

Many local residents believe soldiers receive preferential treatment in the town, typified by the community service orders instead of custodial sentences placed on the four paras who attacked Mr McGuire.

Marie Jones, 23, a student at West Sussex art college, said civilians would have been treated differently. "There is a lot of special treatment for people in the services," she said, adding that she would not go in an Aldershot pub.

"I have nothing against the Army and my dad was in the Navy. It's just when they mix with alcohol, that's the trouble."