By Humphrey Carter

THE flagship of the Royal Navy and HQ ship for the British flotilla in the Gulf during the Iraq war, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal sailed into Palma yesterday taking most people by surprise. The Ark Royal with the destroyer York will be spending six days moored in Palma. Their combined crews of just under 1'000 men and women are looking to find some rest and relaxiation after more than 100 days at sea. The first wave of British troops was launched from the Ark Royal by helicopter and they later seized key targets in southern Iraq. But the carrier was also hit by tragedy when two of its helicopters collided killing seven air crew. A spokesperson for the ship said yesterday that it was purely a “rest visit” and no official functions have been organised and the Ark Royal and York will not be open to the public. Fearing attack the Royal Navy no longer announces the arrivals of its ships beforehand. The Balearic government demanded last night that the two Royal Navy ships leave port at once as they are opposed for local ports being used by warships involved in operations against Iraq. The aircraft carrier and her crew of 680, including some 70 women, set sail from Portsmouth 104 days ago for the Gulf and it was from the decks of HMS Ark Royal and HMS Ocean that the first wave of Royal Marines were flown ashore in the early hours of Friday 21 March, spearheading the assault on Southern Iraq. HMS Ark Royal, under the Command of Captain Alan Massey, who transferred from HMS Illustrious just months after calling into Palma last year on their way back from supporting coalition operations in Afghanistan, was in command of Royal Navy amphibious operations in the Gulf during the Iraq War and at the height of the conflict had over 1000 personnel on board. Operating as an amphibious assault ship and command post for Operation Telic, HMS Ark Royal carried two helicopter squadrons and two compliments of Royal Marines. The carrier, which arrived yesterday under tight security and no public announcement prior to her arrival, will remain in Palma for six days on a very low key visit which is primarily to give the crew the chance to rest and relax.
Yesterday as many of the crew headed off to the beaches and resorts, stores were taken aboard and routine maintenance was being carried out, the sand of the Gulf could clearly be seen blasted against her hull. When she sets sail bound for home next week, the journey will be used to transform her back into a “fixed-wing” aircraft carrier and she will remain on active duty until HMS Invincible is ready to take over. In the meantime, in Portsmouth there will be a few days' leave for the crew and then back to work.

Needless to say the arrival of HMS Ark Royal and HMS York has not been welcomed by the local government which has repeatedly asked Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar not to allow Balearic facilities to be used by allied forces. While this is the first visit by Royal Navy ships involved in the Iraq War, two United States warships have recently put into Palma unannounced and security was tight in port with Guardia Civil patrols monitoring developments. Again the Palma-based Platform for Globalisation and Democracy appears to have been caught by surprise. When the USS Hawes left Majorca earlier this month, they called for the public to join in protests when the next allied warships arrived, claiming that the reason no protests have been mounted so far is that they had not been sufficiently warned of the ships' arrival. Guardia Civil sources down on the dockside yesterday said that a handful of protesters gathered on the sea wall when the USS Hawes was in “but they got bored after half an hour and went home.” The security forces are not expecting any significant protests during the Ark Royal's stay despite the local government's cool welcome to the aircraft carrier, destroyer and their crews.


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