UK air bases step up activity

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Military activity is increasing in Britain as forces are built up for a possible strike against the terrorist network that attacked American cities on Tuesday.

Senior British military planners are reported to have been put on alert and told to stay within the Greater London area, and some of the units preparing for a major military exercise in Oman have been despatched earlier than they were expecting.

In recent days large military fuel tankers have been seen taking off and landing at the US air force's Mildenhall and Lakenheath bases in East Anglia. These are essential for mid-air refuelling as the US seeks to "pre-position" forces for action anywhere from north Africa to the Middle East and central Asia, with the most likely target being Afghanistan, the country harbouring America's prime suspect for last week's atrocity, Osama bin Laden.

Two Boeing 707-based JSTARS – flying command and control centres used in the Nato bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic's regime – are also reported to have arrived in the UK.

Heavy bombing raids or cruise missiles are highly likely to be used against targets in Afghanistan, according to reports in the US. In both cases the US would probably need to use the B-52 long-range bombers based at Fairford in Gloucestershire, Cyprus and the British Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia. Britain and its bases abroad would also be needed as staging posts for the movement of equipment such as the pilotless drones that would be used for aerial reconnaissance in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Britain currently has an RAF presence in the Gulf, helping to patrol the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq. It consists of 18 Jaguar and Tornado strike aircraft and two air tankers.

A total of about 1,200 British personnel are stationed in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They could be made available to any task force assembled in the region, along with elements preparing for the exercise in Oman; these include, in addition to naval vessels, a Royal Marines commando brigade and an armoured brigade with 66 Challenger 2 tanks.

The US has used British air bases on many occasions in recent years, most controversially when President Reagan staged air strikes against the headquarters of the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, in 1986. Giant B-52 bombers flew from Fairford to carpet-bomb Iraqi forces during the Gulf War, and again in the air campaign during the 1999 Kosovo war.