David Cameron’s praise for RAF Marham air crews, as MPs back military action in Libya

PUBLISHED: 09:33 22 March 2011 | UPDATED: 16:48 22 March 2011

A Tornado takes off from Marham yesterday.

A Tornado takes off from Marham yesterday.

Military action in Libya by forces including RAF Marham Tornado jets has helped avoid a “bloody massacre”, David Cameron said last night.

Marham Tornados target Libya

Tornados flew for two consecutive nights from Marham, on the longest sortie flown by the RAF since the 1982 Falklands conflict.

On Saturday night an undisclosed number of aircraft took off from the Norfolk base to attack what were described as “high value targets” around the Libyan capital of Tripoli, using Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles.

All returned to base safely, after taking part in an operation involving American bomber aircraft, Allied war ships and a British submarine to neutralise Col Gaddafi’s air defences.

On Sunday night a force of up to a dozen aircraft left Marham shortly before 9pm. Yesterday it emerged that a number had called off their mission and returned to base for fear civilians were in their target zone.

Yesterday, a number of aircraft took off for the Gioia del Colle base in southern Italy. They will join RAF Typhoon fighters and aircraft from other Allied countries at the base enforcing the no-fly zone.

The base was a hive of activity yesterday, as aircraft were prepared for their mission and trucks were loaded with spares and stores needed to keep the Tornados in the air.

Marham’s commanding officer last night hailed the “Herculean” efforts of the RAF jet crews.

Group Capt Peter Rochelle said Tornado GR4 crews had twice flown thousands of miles from their base at RAF Marham, in Norfolk.

Group Capt Rochelle said: “They have flown 3,000-mile round trips. Our crews are trained to fly a whole range of different types of missions.

“They have not required any extra training. These kind of trips are not unique, although they are unusual.”

Of the aborted mission, group capt Rochelle said: “Our crews flew right up to the launch point, when we received intelligence about civilians and they turned around and brought their weapons back. We do not view this as any kind of failure.

“It showed that we are able to deal with changing circumstances.”

Military action in Libya by forces including RAF Marham Tornado jets has helped avoid a “bloody massacre”, David Cameron said last night.

The Prime Minister said “good progress” had been made in enforcing the United Nations-backed no-fly zone, before MPs voted by 557 to 13 in favour of continued military action.

Mr Cameron said: “This is not going to be another Iraq. Coalition forces have largely neutralised Libyan air defences and as a result a no-fly zone has effectively been put in place over Libya,” Mr Cameron said.

“It is also clear that coalition forces have helped to avert what could have been a bloody massacre in Benghazi. In my view they did so just in the nick of time.”

Tornado aircraft from Marham in Norfolk were involved from the outset of operations, on Saturday night.

Mr Cameron said: “I’m sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to our servicemen and women who are performing with their usual professionalism and courage.

“Our thoughts must be with their families and their loved ones at this time as they risk their lives to help save the lives of others.”

Defence chiefs last night denied British forces had caused civilian casualties in Libya, as Tornado jets took off to join the next phase of the operation.

Earlier, it emerged some aircraft from the Norfolk base had aborted their mission in the early hours of Monday, because it was feared civilians were in the firing line.

Major General John Lorimer, Britain’s top military spokesman, said: “As the RAF GR4 Tornados approached the target, further information came to light that identified a number of civilians within the intended target area. As a result the decision was taken not to launch weapons. This decision underlines the UK’s commitment to the protection of civilians.”

After a meeting in Whitehall of the National Security Council, the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, welcomed the decision of the Tornados to turn back when it became clear that civilians could be at risk.

“We are very, very alert to our responsibilities to the civilian population,” he said.

“We don’t want to fall into the propaganda trap that Mr Gaddafi is obviously trying to set us.”

Former RAF Marham Tornado navigator John Nichol, who was shot down in the first Gulf War and held captive and tortured in Iraq, said there would be a “sense of frustration” about not being able to get the job done but the thought of civilian casualties would “play heavily” on their minds.

“The thought of civilian casualties is uppermost for the individual crews,” he said. “The men and the women who fly our aircraft, none of them want to make a mistake and have civilian deaths on their hands.”

Tornado ground attack aircraft - which have been carrying out attacks from Marham, were yesterday on their way to a forward operating base at Gioia del Colle, in southern Italy.

They will join RAF Typhoon fighter jets as part of an international force policing the no-fly zone imposed on Col Gaddafi’s forces, to protect Libyan civilians.

The aircraft are believed to be equipped with Paveway IV laser-guided bombs and Brimstone guided missiles, as well as the Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles.

They will also have available Raptor infra-red sensors to enable them to help monitor the situation on the ground along with the Sentry, Sentinel, and Nimrod R1 surveillance aircraft operating from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.

British and French planes targeted Gaddafi’s anti-aircraft sites for a second night on Sunday and also destroyed a line of tanks moving onto the rebel capital in eastern Libya.

Libya has claimed dozens of civilians have been killed in the strikes by the US and European forces.

Col Gaddafi described the military operation as “colonial, crusader aggression”, while Libyan state TV has claimed that 48 civilians were killed and 150 wounded in the first night’s action.

The action comes amid apparent signs of unease in the Arab world over the scale of the attacks.

Amr Mussa, secretary general of the Arab League, said: “What has happened in Libya differs from the goal of imposing a no-fly zone.

“What we want is the protection of civilians and not bombing other civilians.”

But Maj Gen Lorimer said: “Despite Libyan reports and claims to the contrary, we are not aware of any civilian casualties.”

David Cameron’s spokesman said the Prime Minister had spoken to Mr Mussa and the pair were “agreed that the protection of civilians was paramount”.

He said the Prime Minister told Mr Mussa that the coalition was “working with targeting to avoid civilian deaths”.

Claims of success by allied forces over Libya have intensified speculation about what the next moves will be in the military campaign.

Us commander Admiral Mike Mullen, has said a no-fly zone is now effectively in place.

But the destruction of a building inside Col Muammar Gaddafi’s compound by a cruise missile last has raised fresh questions about whether he is seen as legitimate target by the allies.

The US insisted he was not a target, with Pentagon spokesman Vice-Admiral William Gortney telling a press briefing: “We are not going after Gaddafi.”

But Defence Secretary Liam Fox has not ruled out the possibility of allied forces treating Gaddafi as a legitimate target for air strikes.

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