Blair tells troops: We must fight or let the extremists determine our fate

War against terrorism: Oman Visit
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The Independent Online

A shirt-sleeved Tony Blair was flown by helicopter into the Omani desert on Wednesday to tell British troops wondering whether they could be called to serve in Afghanistan that they were in the "front line" of the battle to stop the "extremists, the terrorists, the fanatics".

In blistering heat, the Prime Minister was heard out with respect ­ and perhaps the slightest tinge of apprehension ­ as he told hundreds of servicemen and women that the experience they had gained in a joint exercise with Omani forces would "stand us in excellent stead for any trials we face in the future".

After lunching with troops in the main mess tent, Mr Blair told his mainly British audience: "For all of you, you never know when you are going to be called on to risk your lives. Sometimes it's worth remembering why it is we need our forces and ask you to put your lives at risk in this way."

It wasn't just because the country had to be defended, he said. "We also defend certain values, our freedom, our ability to respect people of different faiths and races, our ability to fight for a sense of justice. When we are prepared to fight, what is at stake is whether we try to resolve issues in the world by talking to people, by negotiating, by reaching a common understanding, or whether we let the extremists, the terrorists, the fanatics, determine our fate."

More than 22,000 British military personnel are involved in the joint exercise ­ the biggest three-service operation since the Gulf War. Although the planning of the exercise predates the mass murders of 11 September, and all troops are at present scheduled to go home next month, some contingents could be called on to take part in operations in Afghanistan.

Oman's Sandhurst-trained leader, Sultan Qaboos, who met Mr Blair to discuss the crisis yesterday, has given no official indication of whether he would be prepared to allow British use of the country as a base once the exercise was over.

Most soldiers repeat the official line that the forces will be going home once the exercise is complete ­ while acknowledging that some could yet be required for service in Afghanistan.

Corporal Neil Bowie, from Edinburgh, pointed to the barren hillside and stream a mile or so from the camp and said: "Beyond that burn there are mountains just like Afghanistan. I'm due to be going home when the exercise is over, but we'll do what we are told to do. That's our job."

Cpl Bowie, a chief clerk transferred for the exercise from the Northwood base, north of London, added: "The logistics could be very difficult but at least we will be well trained for it."

Bob Nielson, a Jaguar pilot who served in the Gulf War and is now on RAF Headquarters staff, said: "I do not know what future plans are and I wouldn't say if I did. But the solution in Afghanistan will not just be military. It has to be political too. Look at Northern Ireland."

Matt Lawrence, an RAF navigator, said: "Of course people will be well trained after Oman, but it's just a coincidence they happen to be here. Some of the Marines are due to go to Norway soon, going to 35 below zero after being in this heat. That's what preparedness is about."

After Mr Blair had spoken, another RAF pilot said: "The speech was fine, but it's really cosmetic. We will just do our job as we always do."

¿ Kate Adie has threatened to sue Downing Street unless they withdraw an allegation that she inadvertently leaked details of Mr Blair's travel itinerary. She claimed that Tom Kelly, a press officer, had made "personal allegations" against her and has instructed Mark Stephens, a media lawyer, to pursue legal action.

Ms Adie was covering Mr Blair's trip to Oman which she had discussed on air with the BBC Breakfast News presenter Jeremy Bowen on Tuesday.

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