Celebration of soldiers' return is put on hold as mourning begins

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The Independent Online

The garrison town of Colchester had been putting the finishing touches to welcome home celebrations for the troops in Iraq when they heard of the ambush at Amara.

The garrison town of Colchester had been putting the finishing touches to welcome home celebrations for the troops in Iraq when they heard of the ambush at Amara.

Yesterday the plans were shelved and replaced by a period of mourning. The 16 Air Assault Brigade and Colchester Garrison flew its flag at half-mast. In the town centre just 15 minutes walk from Goojerat barracks the town hall flag also flew at half-mast to reflect the public grief.

Colchester's Mayor, Chris Hall, said morale had been high in anticipation of the troops' return in three weeks' time. "We were just getting ready to celebrate the safe return of our 300 soldiers and putting together an informal church service with a reception at the town hall afterwards," he said. "Now we are beginning our period of mourning."

The deaths have left a deep impact on a town where the Royal Military Police was a strong and active presence. "One in 10 people in this town should have a soldier in their family and all of us are full of a collective sorrow," said the Mayor. "The RMP were seen out on the streets every night and shared the responsibility for keeping law and order."

In the town centre a soldier from 16 Air Assault Brigade was in the Bull, a pub popular with the military. He was deployed to a region only a few miles away from Amara for four months from which he returned three weeks ago.

"This does not come as a surprise to those who have served in the region during and after the conflict," he said. "The atmosphere out there was building up to this.

"It began as friendly after liberation but by the time I left the police and militia were making it plain that they wanted to be left alone.

"We had children stoning our vehicles - about 20 to 30 children at a time."

He had served in the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment for six years and he was particularly anxious for eight former comrades who were injured in the ambush.

"Some of us feel the deaths are the start of a trend of local uprisings," he said.

Another soldier, Private Jack Finn-Kelcey, 21, agreed that while the military police led a separate and close-knit existence the news was still shocking to his regiment, 2 Para. "One of my first thoughts when we were told the news is that a friend may be among the dead," he said.

"My best friend from the 1st Battalion is out there at the moment and I feel a lot of apprehension that he may be one of the injured. The feeling among us until this happened was that the conflict was pretty much over."

Stephanie Chamberlain, 20, and Charlotte Trew, 20, had spent the day reflecting on the loss of Paul Graham Long, who lived in the town.

Ms Chamberlain said: "We didn't know him personally but it brings the conflict home to us and it's too close for comfort. We have both gone out with men from the garrison at some point. No one can be less than touched by this."

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