War in the Balkans: Military Presence: Extra troops could spearhead invasion

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The Independent Online
THE EXTRA 1,800 British troops being sent to Macedonia will double the number of frontline soldiers on the ground and bring the Army's presence there to full armoured brigade strength. This is a potent, self-supporting formation that could provide the perfect spearhead to an invasion of Kosovo. But it may not be fully in place for a month and would require huge back-up from other nation's forces before becoming a credible threat.

The deployment features a squadron of 14 Challenger 1 main battle tanks from the King's Royal Hussars, two companies of armoured infantry with 40 Warrior fighting vehicles from the Irish Guards and the Green Howards, six AS-90 155mm self propelled guns from 4 Regiment Royal Artillery, with combat Royal Engineers and other support units. These represent a second battle group from 4 Armoured Brigade (the "Black Rats") based in Osnabruck, Germany. They will join the brigade's tactical headquarters, which is already in Macedonia, and its lead battle group, which is currently deployed on the frontier with Kosovo.

Support engineers and an Irish Guards reconnaissance group will leave by ship today from Emden in northern Germany, while the heavy armour will embark on Friday. The troops will be dispatched to join their equipment when it arrives at Thessaloniki in Greece about 10 days later.

Units deploying from Britain include 20 light reconnaissance vehicles from the Household Cavalry Regiment, based at Windsor and 10 DROPS logistic support vehicles from Catterick in North Yorkshire. In all, the new troops will bring the total deployment in Macedonia and Greece to 6,300.

Once fully assembled, the brigade will be able to train effectively together for the first time since it was placed on alert in February. The lead battle group has been in Macedonia since the end of the first set of Rambouillet peace talks, and the second battle group has been on 72 hours' notice to move ever since.

Defence sources say it will be 20 to 30 days before the new troops and their equipment are fully operational. Given that this is supposed to be the backbone of a peace-keeping or protection force, the time scale gives a strong indication of how long both the Government and Nato commanders think that the air campaign will have to continue before any deal can be done.