The tragic deaths of two British Army pilots in a helicopter crash in County Derry has refocused attention on the dangers posed by Britain's continuing military presence in the North of Ireland.

A high-speed Gazelle chopper came down outside Derry near the busy Derry-Coleraine highway while on a flight from Omagh, County Tyrone. The cause of the crash remains unknown.

The helicopter crashed 400 yards from the highway and 300 yards from a rugby clubhouse.

Eyewitnesses told police the Gazelle ``dropped like a stone''. The catastrophe which would have resulted if the chopper had come down on the highway was narrowly averted.

Another helicopter, a Puma with military personnel on board, was also in the area at the time. A British army spokesman said the crash was an accident.

The helicopter had been based at Aldergrove airport in County Antrim, but the pilots had been on a flight from Omagh to Ballykelly barracks in County Derry.

The Gazelle is used by the British Army for spying. The helicopters spend many hours around the clock hovering over both rural and urban areas.

Safety concerns over the use of the helicopter first arose in July 2002, when another Gazelle crashed in Ballykelly. The occupants survived - but a similar accident in England in November 2001 killed the pilot.

The Celtic League have spent a lot of effort raising the issue of British Army Helicopter reliability.

The group has previously characterised the Gazelle as ``one of a number of military types operated by the British Army and Royal Air Force which are extremely `long in the tooth'.

``Their continued operation, and the safety risk they pose both to aircrew and to the civil population over the areas in which they operate, makes a mockery of.. high-tech defence initiatives to equip the Armed Forces to tackle new terrorist threats.''

In 1995, British Army HQ in Ireland admitted, in correspondence with the Celtic League, that the Gazelle was a ``relatively old'' design and questions in the House of Commons three months ago revealed that at that time it had the worst serviceability record, 55%, of all the helicopter types operated by the British military.

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© 2003 Irish Republican News