Garrison town in mourning

By Roddy AshworthCOLCHESTER was a town in mourning yesterday after it was revealed that six soldiers found dead in Iraq had been based there.The grim news that the Royal Military Police officers from the town had been killed while serving in the Gulf was broken outside Goojerat Barracks at lunchtime yesterday.

By Roddy Ashworth

COLCHESTER was a town in mourning yesterday after it was revealed that six soldiers found dead in Iraq had been based there.

The grim news that the Royal Military Police officers from the town had been killed while serving in the Gulf was broken outside Goojerat Barracks at lunchtime yesterday.

The troops were killed by Iraqis in the town, near Basra, amid a reported two-hour gun battle which left a police station, where four of them were holed up, riddled with bullets. Their deaths represent the heaviest single combat loss for British forces since the 1991 Gulf War.

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A senior British officer described the deaths of the Red Caps in Al Majar al-Kabir on Tuesday as "unprovoked murder", but witnesses in the southern Iraq town claim the soldiers had opened fire on demonstrators first.

An investigation is under way into the incident, but a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said it could be days before a clear picture emerged.

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The announcement of the death of six Colchester-based soldiers was made by Major Bryn Parry-Jones, commanding officer of 156 Provost Company, as faced the world's media, with his head bowed, in bright sunshine to speak of the killings.

"The loss of six soldiers from such a small, tight knit unit as 156 Provost Company clearly comes as a dreadful shock to us all, not only the friends and families of those killed but all those in the Royal Military Police who knew and worked with them," he said.

"All these men were highly professional soldiers and policemen. These deaths in action underline the challenging and difficult operations that the Royal Military Police are asked to undertake both in peace and times of conflict.

"From the oldest, aged 41, to the youngest, aged 20, these soldiers had between them a wealth of operational experience and distinguished service. You will understand that the circumstances surrounding this dreadful incident are still being investigated.

"At this time our priority is to give all the support we can to families and friends who have coped with the loss of loved ones.

"We ask our men and women to risk the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. It is the sad truth that sometimes comes to pass."

Maj Parry-Jones said Iraq had been the company's third operational deployment in the past two years.

He added: "My soldiers were building on the excellent work which they had done in Afghanistan. All soldiers were very, very popular members of the unit and they will all be sorely missed.'

Meanwhile tributes for the dead men and messages of support for their families poured in throughout the day.

Colchester MP Bob Russell said: "This is the darkest day Colchester Garrison has experienced in almost 60 years.

"The town, where the civilian population probably has as many former servicemen and women as those currently serving in the Army, is in shock at this tragic news.

"Around 3,000 members of the Colchester Garrison served in the recent conflict in Iraq. None from the town was killed in action; most have already returned home.

"The relief of their safe return has turned to disbelief at what has now happened.

"Our thoughts and prayers go to the families of those who have lost their lives."

Colchester mayor Chris Hall said plans to celebrate the return of soldiers to the town following the end of the war would now be put on hold.

"The soldiers of the Colchester Garrison and their families are a significant part of the community, and as a result there is a great sense of sorrow in the borough for those who have lost their lives," he added.

"I'm sure, like me, the hearts of the people of Colchester go out to the families of the soldiers involved. They are very much in our thoughts and prayers at this sad time."

Bernard Jenkin, MP for North Essex and also shadow secretary of state for defence, said: "This is an absolute tragedy for Colchester Garrison and the families who have lost loved ones.

"The whole town, and the whole county, will feel solidarity with those who are now mourning. It is a terrible, terrible tragedy."

He added: "It is too soon to draw conclusions from this incident, but clearly there was a breakdown in force protection that may require the presence of more troops.

"The whole armed forces family know the risks and will take this in their stride. They will not be deflected in their mission, and nor should we."

A spokesman for 16 Air Assault Brigade said: "The brigade's padre Nick Cook is working with families and colleagues of those lost.

"The mood in the garrison is very sombre. Counselling is also available to those still in Iraq and we have a padre working out there.'

He added the members of the brigade in Iraq were due to return over the next month and the deaths of the six soldiers would not alter those plans.

Soldiers and their families at the town's barracks were kept up to date as events unfolded by the Garrison Radio station.

Mark Page, managing director and morning presenter, said: "There has been a marked change in tempo in our output. We have paid close attention to our music and content.

"There has also been a change to our army news bulletins. They have been devoted to the tragedies of the deaths of the Royal Military Police officers.

"We are part of the garrison community – it's all a big family, really. Our thoughts are with the families and colleagues of those who have died."

Colchester Borough Council leader, Liberal Democrat Colin Sykes, said: "This is a great, great shame. My heart goes out to all the families affected by this tragic news.

"It must be a terrible blow for the families and my thoughts are with them."

Conservative Group leader John Jowers interrupted his holiday in Corsica to issue a tribute to the dead soldiers.

"This is such sad news, particularly after what had been such a successful operation in Iraq.

"It is difficult to find words to express how great the loss must be for the families, but my thoughts and sympathies are with them."

Tim Young, leader of the council's Labour Group, said: "This is absolutely tragic and devastating for the families and friends of the soldiers who have died and our thoughts are with them at this time.

"The community of Colchester will pull together and give them every support they need at this difficult time."

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