British soldiers sent to guard aid convoys

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The Independent Online
OPERATION 'Grapple', to protect relief convoys into Bosnia, is under way today after three weeks' waiting for the United Nations to accept Britain's offer of troops. A reinforced infantry battalion group - 1,800 British soldiers with more than 420 vehicles - will join up to 4,000 soldiers from seven other countries to protect convoys in one of four areas in Bosnia.

The new forces in Bosnia will be commanded by a major-general, whose nationality is still undecided, reporting to the Indian UN commander, Lieutenant General Satish Nambiar. The senior British commander in the former Yugoslavia is Colonel Mark Cook, based in Zagreb, Croatia. He will also take responsibility for the extra troops in Bosnia.

The core of the reinforced battalion group is the armoured infantry battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, based at Fallingbostel, Germany. The battalion is being brought up to operational strength - 750 men - by soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment. The Cheshires are part of Seventh Armoured Brigade, which fought in the Gulf war although the battalion was not deployed as a unit, so they include soldiers with experience of action under fire.

Other key elements of the battle group are an armoured reconnaissance squadron of the 9th/12th Lancers, based at Herford, in Germany, and a contingent of 35 Engineer regiment based at Hameln. The Engineers are important because of the large number of mines scattered around and the poor state of the roads in the areas where the convoys will be operating.

Army sources said yesterday the full Cheshire battalion was being sent. This includes 45 Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles, which are having extra armour fitted, as in the Gulf war; a 50- strong mortar platoon with eight 81mm mortars; and a 76-strong anti-tank platoon with 24 Milan anti-tank missile launchers.

The battalion group therefore wields considerable firepower to deal with targets within visual range, but it is not being augmented with extra artillery or with mortar-locating radar - for the moment. Army sources last night said that the scheme was flexible, and that if the reconnaissance party decided that helicopters were needed, for example, they could be added.

The battalion group's 'eyes' are an additional squadron of the 9th/12th Lancers based at Herford - about 100 soldiers with 12 Scimitar light tanks and four Striker long-range anti-tank missile launch vehicles.

Britain already has a strong medical contingent in Croatia - 24 Field Ambulance - and this will provide medical back-up for the further forces now being deployed in Bosnia.

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