Laden with death and destruction, the B-52s take off in front of peace demonstrators

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The Independent Online

The signs hanging off the razor wire at RAF Fairford yesterday said everything about events taking place inside. As eight fully laden B-52 bombers thundered into the skies at 10am, a single sentence in red letters read: "Use of deadly force authorized." One after the other, these brutish bringers of war launched themselves along the two-mile runway of the Gloucestershire air base, belching black smoke from their eight screaming engines as they hauled themselves into the air and peeled off towards the Gulf.

The signs hanging off the razor wire at RAF Fairford yesterday said everything about events taking place inside. As eight fully laden B-52 bombers thundered into the skies at 10am, a single sentence in red letters read: "Use of deadly force authorized." One after the other, these brutish bringers of war launched themselves along the two-mile runway of the Gloucestershire air base, belching black smoke from their eight screaming engines as they hauled themselves into the air and peeled off towards the Gulf.

For nearly a fortnight, the 14 matt grey Stratofortresses of the United States Air Force 2nd Bomb Wing had sat on the concrete runways like a pod of beached whales as the 1,000 personnel from the jets' home bases in Louisiana and North Dakota tinkered, polished and awaited the order to load up and take off.

That order finally came in the small hours of yesterday, prompting a flurry of activity by ground crews at dawn as they loaded each of the planes with canisters of aluminium chaff and 30 tons of laser-guided munitions and cruise missiles.

If there was any doubt the aircraft were equipped for "deadly force", it was dismissed by residents of the Cotswold villages surrounding RAF Fairford who had gathered at the end of the runway to imperil their ear drums by gazing at the spectacle of 120 tons of roaring metal and high explosive straining into the air. Even several of the hundreds of police drafted in for a vast security operation got out their cameras for a memento snapshot.

Within six hours, the planes were likely to be over Iraq. If they were carrying cruise missiles, which have a range of 1,500 miles, they needed only to fly to Cyprus before opening their bomb bays.

Jackie Moore, 38, walking her two dogs, Smudge and Ben, as the sickly stench of burnt aviation fuel hung in the air, was matter of fact. "I saw them take off for the first Gulf War and Kosovo," she said. "When they have to come this far down the runway to get airborne you can tell they're being sent to blow some poor soul to smithereens." The public relations staff of the 424th Air Base Squadron, who run the base, were less forthcoming. Refusing to confirm reports that the bombers had been sent in a support role to be called upon by British and American forces in southern Iraq, an earnestly polite lieutenant said: "Sir, it's more than I can do to tell you anything about where they've gone, what they're carrying or how many of them there are." The message from within RAF Fairford – from the sign promising a close encounter with a high velocity bullet for trespassers, to the information blackout on the planes' mission – was that everything inside that barbed wire was strictly out of bounds. Peace campaigners and human rights experts expressed concern not only at the departure of the bombers to Iraq but also the fact that extreme violence was also being threatened in the Cotswolds.

The signs, attached at 100-yard intervals to an inner cordon of razor wire and fencing running the length of the 14-mile perimeter of the base, read: "Warning. Restricted area. It is unlawful to enter this area without permission of the installation commander ... Use of deadly force authorized." The authority for such a threat, according to the sign, was Section 21 of the 1950 Internal Security Act passed by the United States Congress. Those responsible for enforcing it, US troops carrying rifles perched on outbuildings dotted about the base, could be seen clearly through binoculars.

Meanwhile, Adele Perret, spokeswoman for anti-war demonstrators, said: "I had tears in my eyes as the planes took off. We all know the deadly force that they're talking about – the type that kills people from six miles up in the sky inside a B-52. From up there, you can't tell if it's a soldier with a rifle or a child with a stick."

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