They came. They sawed. The towers were conquered

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The Independent Online

Soldiers armed with mechanical saws signalled a further downgrading of Britain's military presence in Ulster as the demolition of a watchtower and a garrison began with a shower of sparks and the dismantling of eavesdropping hardware.

Soldiers armed with mechanical saws signalled a further downgrading of Britain's military presence in Ulster as the demolition of a watchtower and a garrison began with a shower of sparks and the dismantling of eavesdropping hardware.

Removal of the "super-sangar" observation post in Newtownhamilton, south Armagh, and the Magherafelt base, Co Londonderry, followed the arrival on Wednesday of teams to demolish look-out towers at Sturgan's Mountain and Camlough Mountain.

Officers in charge of the operation, part of the Government's response to the decommissioning of IRA weapons announced by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr John Reid, said they expected all three watchtowers to be dismantled within 10 days. An Army spokesman said: "It will take longer to dig up the foundations but there will be no visible structure. We intend to leave each site as it was found, rock and earth." Up to 300 tons of equipment will have to be removed from each of the sites in the heart of Newtownhamilton and on the remote hillsides.

Helicopters ferried 10-strong teams from the Royal Engineers to the observation posts, which stand some 15 metres (50 feet) high, built to withstand explosions which destroyed up to 60 per cent of their foundations.

The Army flew reporters to Sturgan's Mountain to see the hi-tech look-out post known as Romeo-One-One and used with 10 other hilltop sites to monitor suspected terrorist activity in south Armagh, the so-called bandit country close to the Irish Republic's border. A large camera on top of the structure, resented by local farmers as intrusive, had been covered with tarpaulin to signal it was no longer in commission.

In Newtownhamilton, where the watchtower dominates a small town of around 1,000 people to protect an adjoining RUC station and barracks, cameras and listening equipment were also being removed. Final removal of accommodation blocks, fuel reservoirs, a sewage works and electricity generators at all three watchtower sites is expected to take up to 12 months.

Work to remove the Magherafelt base, which was used by up to 100 soldiers at a time and covers 600sq m, is expected to take a year. With cramped sleeping quarters, an exercise bike, a tiny TV room and walls decorated with pin-ups as the only forms of recreation, there were also signs among the soldiers who staff the watchtowers that they will not be greatly missed.

Major Alasdair Balgarnie, the officer in charge of the demolition work, said: "It's pretty bleak up here. The main problem we have is the water freezing in the winter and the electricity being cut off."

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