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Serious security lapse at RAF base

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, JULY 4. Questions have been raised about the security at one of Britain's most sensitive surveillance centres - the RAF base at Menwith Hill in north Yorkshire - after a group of Greenpeace activists stormed it on Tuesday, meeting with little resistance as they literally walked through its front gate. For as long as it would have taken real saboteurs to wreak havoc, the peaceniks had a free run of the place - cutting wirefences, climbing up a watertank, roaming around the ``secure'' complex and even greeting the unsuspecting GIs, out on their morning jog.

The demonstrators, dressed up as missiles and carrying banners and humming the tunes from ``Star Wars'' and ``Mission Impossible'', were protesting U.S. plans to use the base for its ``Son of Star Wars'' programme.

The RAF Menwith Hill, equipped with some of the world's most sophisticated communication facilities, is one of the two British spy bases which the U.S. might use as a ``listening post'' for its nuclear missile defence shield project. The Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, is under pressure from his own Ministers and MPs not to let Americans use the British bases for a programme which, it is widely believed, would accelerate the arms race.

Protesters told newspapers that they were surprised how easy it had been to gain entry into the high-security zone, with only two sleepy men and a dog guarding its entrance. The incident had exposed its vulnerability and made a mockery of its so-called invincibility. ``The fact that we were able to get over 100 volunteers into the base shows how easy it would be to take out U.S. defences. There is no way that the most sophisticated electronic surveillance can guard against attacks by suitcase bombers'', said Mr. Steven Tindale, head of Greenpeace U.K.

It took the base security nearly the whole day to evict the protesters, but some were still holding out until this morning. One report said a group had ``broken back'' into the complex.

In a surreal account of the incident, Mr. John Vidal of The Guardian wrote that ``not a dog barked or siren wailed'' as the protesters breezed past the laidback securityguard and spread themselves out. One group got on to the water tower and ``waved their flags and waited. And waited. Nothing happened.''

Meanwhile, another group managed to reach as far as the ``last line of defence'' just before the area where surveillance is believed to take place. Critics said if anyone could come that close to the real thing, it raised serious questions about the nature of security. By all accounts, it was a security lapse, even if the protesters were guilty of breach of security. ``It was very funny and it does raise questions about the kind of security they have here'', a Greenpeace spokesperson told The Independent.

More protests are planned to highlight the ``dangers'' from the Star Wars programme ahead of the U.S. President, Mr. George W. Bush's talks with Mr. Blair later this month.

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