War pension row embarrasses Blair

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THE GOVERNMENT announced yesterday that it was prepared to overhaul war pensions for foreign nationals after it emerged that the widow of a Gurkha soldier killed in Kosovo would receive just pounds 771 a year.

Downing Street reacted swiftly when it emerged that Nepalese-born Asanta Rai, the widow of Sgt Balaram Rai, would get a pension 20 times smaller than that received by a British service wife in an equivalent position. Sgt Rai, 35, and Lt Gareth Evans, 25, became the first British casualties of the Kosovo conflict when they were killed tackling unexploded cluster bombs on Monday.

Labour MPs reacted angrily when it was revealed that Mrs Rai, who lives in Kathmandu, Nepal, with her family, would get pounds 19,000 lump sum, pounds 939 for five years, and then a mere annual pounds 771 pension thereafter.

Under current army pension rules, the widow of a Briton with equivalent rank would get a pounds 54,000 lump sum, plus a pounds 15,000 annual pension.

Bruce George, Labour chairman of the Defence Select Committee, said that the Gurhka pension was "niggardly" and urged the Army to reconsider the case. The Labour MP Daria Taylor added: "If they're good enough to fight with British forces, they're good enough to get equal treatment."

Mrs Rai said she depended totally on her husband's pounds 600 a month wage and "prays" the British Army will look after her and her two young sons. "When I married Balaram I thought our future would be secure. Now I fear we have no future," she said.

The Ministry of Defence initially insisted that the discrepancy was not unreasonable, given the large difference in the cost of living between the UK and Nepal.

However, it emerged that Tony Blair had personally ordered a review of the case as he felt that the amount offered to Mrs Rai was embarassingly small. The Prime Minister's spokesman stressed yesterday that the matter was now under active consideration. "I can understand the feelings expressed.

"The widow of the Gurkha has drawn attention to it. It is something that we would want to look at," he said.

Sgt Rai and Lt Evans, members of the 69 Gurkha Field Squadron, died as they tried to move a pile of Nato cluster bombs away from a village school in Negrovce, Kosovo. Both have been hailed as heroes. When the discrepancy over their pensions first emerged the MoD justified its position by comparing relative living costs. "You have to consider these sums in the context of the cost of living in Nepal," a spokesman said. "It costs the average person pounds 175 per person, per year, to live there. However, we would in no way want to suggest that any sum of money is compensation for losing a loved one."