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High winds could force Normandy parachute jumps to be cancelled

HIGH winds could force the cancellation of the parachute jumps scheduled over Normandy this weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day, a senior French military officer said yesterday.

General Jean-Michel Nicolas, who commands military air traffic control and security for northern France, said sky-divers practising for Monday's ceremony at Omaha Beach had been unable to jump yesterday because of high winds. Winds had been blowing at 13 metres a second and the French air force did not allow such exercises with winds above 10 metres a second. Weather forecasters have predicted much stronger winds over the weekend.

Apart from the sky-diving team, 1,000 people are scheduled to drop tomorrow over Pegasus Bridge where British gliders and paratroops landed early on 6 June 1944. In tomorrow's event, the parachutists, flying in from Britain, will include contingents from Canada and Poland. At Sainte Mere-Eglise, two jumps are scheduled for tomorrow, one by 40 American veterans who took part in the D-Day operation, now all in their seventies. That jump is due to be followed by a French and American drop of serving paratroopers.

General Nicolas stressed that the final decision on whether to go ahead would lie with the participating nations.

The parachute jumps are just part of a general air security problem. All air traffic except flights connected with the anniversary has been banned from a 50- by 80- kilometre area on Monday. An operation, modelled on the Nato monitoring of the skies in the former Yugoslavia, has been put into effect. General Nicolas said the authorities feared 'Sunday pilots' who might ignore the ban, perhaps to gain media attention.

Four Mirage 2000 fighters had been brought to Normandy as part of the security arrangements. Armed helicopters would also patrol the area, some carrying marksmen. But General Nicolas said civilian passenger aircraft would not be threatened unless they were seen to drop objects.

In the case of an aircraft ignoring warnings, shots would first be fired in its vicinity, then it would be buzzed by a fighter. 'The turbulence would be very destabilising,' General Nicolas said. 'I'll say no more.'

A soldier's tale, Weekend section