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Muslim anti-war protesters abuse troops

Soldiers at homecoming parade in Luton branded 'butchers of Basra'

Islamic protesters brandishing placards hurled abuse at soldiers parading to mark their return home from Iraq yesterday.

Around 20 men yelled "terrorists" and held homemade signs denouncing the soldiers as "butchers of Basra" and "baby killers" as they marched through Luton in Bedfordshire.

Other signs described the 200 men and women from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment as "Criminals, Murderers, Terrorists".

The atmosphere further deteriorated when locals waving St George's flags turned on the protesting group chanting "scum" and "no surrender to the Taliban". As the two groups yelled insults at each other, police dogs and riot vans were used to keep them apart.

Last night Bedfordshire police confirmed that two people had been arrested for public order offences.

Two years ago the head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, called on local councils to organise homecoming parades to demonstrate respect for servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. For the soldiers, many of whom fear a lack of support at home, the parades have become of source of pride and pleasure.

The Royal Anglian's 2nd Battalion – known as The Poachers – has recently returned home from its second tour of Iraq, having lost two men in the country in 2006. Its sister, 1st Battalion, suffered nine deaths in Helmand during a brutal tour in 2007.

Luton has a 30,000-strong Muslim community, 20 per cent of the town's population, and ethnic tensions have been high for several years. In 2001 the extremist Islamic group Al Muhajiroun claimed that three recruits from Luton had been killed by American bombs at a Taliban compound in Kabul.

The trouble broke out as the 200 soldiers paraded through Luton, greeted by crowds four deep. But a group of 20 Muslim protesters – said to be from an organisation called Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah – brandished placards with slogans proclaiming "Anglian Soldiers: Butchers of Basra" and "Anglian Soldiers: cowards, killers, extremists."

As the parade reached Luton Town Hall the group shouted "Terrorists" and "Anglian soldiers go to hell", only to be set upon by furious locals, who retorted "scum", while waving Union flags.

As the parade finished in St George's Square, in front of the Duke of Gloucester, Colonel-in-chief of the regiment, the Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire, Sam Whitbread, and General Sir John McColl KCB, police had to force the protesters into a small area for their own protection.

Defence Secretary John Hutton said: "I can only condemn the tiny minority who used this opportunity to make, whatever their personal views, utterly ridiculous and insulting comments to these brave men and women."

"This is offensive, appalling and disgraceful. It is only because of the sacrifices made by our armed forces that these people live in a free society where they are able to make their sordid protests," added Shadow Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox.

An Army spokesman said the troops had been "deeply touched" by the support despite the disturbance, adding: "There is no better boost to a soldier than to see hundreds of people turn out to watch them on parade. It was a great sight, to see the packed streets in some places three or four men deep, and although a small minority of protesters chose to demonstrate this did not detract from the parade and the Poachers deeply appreciate the support shown from the local community."