Arrests made after air base break-in

By Sheena WalsheANTI-war protesters grounded fighter jets at one of Europe's biggest air bases when they broke in, rode bicycles on the main runway and chained themselves together with locks fastened around their necks.

By Sheena Walshe

ANTI-war protesters grounded fighter jets at one of Europe's biggest air bases when they broke in, rode bicycles on the main runway and chained themselves together with locks fastened around their necks.

The nine demonstrators - many of whom had never taken part in direct action before - predicted last night the American bases of RAF Lakenheath and nearby RAF Mildenhall would be targeted again in protest at a possible war on Iraq.

The protesters said their action at RAF Lakenheath yesterday embarrassed the American authorities by showing how easy it was to break in and disrupt operations at a time when security should be at optimum levels.

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But United States Air Force (USAF) officials defended their response to the break-in and said the demonstrators had been detained quickly.

The action at the base, which is home to state-of-the-art F15 fighter jets and played a key role in the last Gulf War, began just after 11am yesterday when two protesters cut a hole in the perimeter fence near Lakenheath Warren.

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Seven more demonstrators, riding bikes, headed for the runways, where four sat down in back-to-back pairs and locked themselves together on a taxi way.

The security response involved USAF personnel, Ministry of Defence police, the Suffolk police helicopter, two police cars and firefighters, who used hydraulic cutting gear to unlock the protesters in a delicate operation lasting more than two hours.

University lecturer Dr Paul Dolman, 40, one of the demonstrators who rode a bike on the main runway, said the group was not part of any organisation, but was made up of friends opposed to the war.

The father-of-two, from Norwich, added other members of the group included students, a teacher and parents.

“We feel so deeply about what is taking place that we felt obliged to do whatever we could. We knew each other socially and decided to act,” said Dr Dolman.

“It is the first time I have risked doing something where I could be arrested. I did it because I am the parent of two school-aged children out of a sense of compassion for parents and children in Iraq. We are trying to uphold international law against something we regard as illegal.

“It is something I would do again and I would urge anybody who is concerned to do whatever they can to physically oppose the war as long as it is non-violent and carries no risk of injury.”

He added: “Lakenheath is the primary bombing base in Europe and has been involved in bombing missions against Iraq constantly over the last 10 years.

“Planes from here will be involved in attacks that are going to come. There are likely to be other protests targeted at both Lakenheath and Mildenhall in future.

“Lakenheath is also a nuclear weapons depot and I think the fact that we were able to get onto the base at the drop of a hat is disturbing, especially in the current situation.”

Dr Dolman said the protesters ensured their actions did not risk their own safety or that of American personnel by telephoning the base authorities as they entered, telling them to alert air traffic control to what was happening.

He added: “Using bikes (in the protest) meant we could get around quickly and get into different areas of the base to cause maximum disruption.

“I cycled up the main runway, which made that inoperable for a while. Two pairs of people locked themselves to each other with D-shaped bicycle locks around their necks. They were very brave to do this and it took the authorities more than two hours to remove them.”

Dr Dolman, who along with two other cyclists was released by the authorities without charge, claimed any action against Iraq would be illegal under international law as it would be “pre-emptive” and not in self-defence.

A Ministry of Defence police spokesman said two people had been arrested for criminal damage, four had been arrested for aggravated trespass and three had been warned off for aggravated trespass - a formal warning meaning if they come back onto the site they will be charged.

RAF Lakenheath spokesman Technical Sergeant Dean Miller said the action posed no specific threat to plane crews, but “did cause airfield operations to cease temporarily”.

He added: “Individuals were bicycle locked neck-to-neck and back-to-back and specialised equipment had to be brought in to remove the locks from their necks.

“We don't want anyone to enter the airfield illegally, but air force security forces detained this group quickly. Everything went according to plan. We look at our security every single day - it is a constant concern.”

The incursion is the latest in a series of anti-war incidents at RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall over the past few months.

In January peace campaigners broke through security fencing at RAF Mildenhall and staged a protest on the main runway.

Last week protester Rachael Milling was convicted of criminal damage at RAF Lakenheath in October after she sprayed an anti-war slogan on the floor.

Six peace protesters brandishing anti-war placards and puppets were also arrested and cautioned for obstructing the highway outside RAF Lakenheath after a protest last month.

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