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BT opens lines to link families

THE 800 British soldiers stationed in snowbound central Bosnia received a morale boost yesterday, courtesy of British Telecom.

For the first time British troops on active service can now speak to - and see - their families on a videoconference terminal. BT is offering the VC 7000 facility free until 4 January. The facility, which has been familiar to viewers of Star Trek for decades but only recently became available, made a dramatic impression particularly on the service families' young children.

Jeremy Hanley, the Armed Forces Minister, was the first to be connected from London to Vitez, where he talked to the commanding officer of the Coldstream Guards battalion group, Lt-Col Peter Williams.

At first the picture seemed in slow motion, and there was a time-lag between lip movements and the sounds. But as the system warmed up, it seemed to get better.

Rona Rutherford and her sons, Christopher, four, and David, 10 months, were the first to talk to Staff Sgt Ian Rutherford, of the Royal Signals, who helped instal the BT telephones and the video facility in Vitez. They were joined, mistakenly, by an enthusiastic Arabella Toler, also four, daughter of Major Hugh Toler, the Coldstream Guards' second-in-command, and his wife, Victoria. Then Major Toler appeared on the screen, leading to shrieks of delight.

Mrs Rutherford was unable to suppress a tear. 'It was just so nice to see him. We'll have another word later'.

S/Sgt Rutherford and Major Toler are only starting their six-month tours, having been in Vitez since early November.

Abigail Keep's husband, Robert, 20, a signalman, is nearing the end of his tour and is due to come home in January. The couple wed in June just before he left for Bosnia. 'My best Christmas present will be him coming home,' 19- year-old Mrs Keep said.