British warship picks up stranded troops, civilians in Spain

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A British navy ship arrived in the northern Spanish port of Santander Tuesday to pick up troops and civilians stranded due to the volcanic ash cloud grounding flights across Europe.

The HMS Albion will transport 250 army personnel who are returning home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan as well as roughly 200 civilians to the port of Portsmouth in southern England, a British embassy spokesman said.

The civilians are mainly holidaymakers who became trapped because of the closure of British airspace, with priority given to those "with a pressing need to return to Britain", he added.

The army personnel reached Spain, which is not under the ash cloud, by air via Cyprus.

The HMS Albion, an amphibious landing ship based at Devonport Naval Base in Plymouth, is expected to depart Santander at 2:30 pm (1230 GMT). It is capable of carrying more than 600 personnel as well as vehicles and combat supplies.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is facing a general election on May 6, announced Monday that London would deploy the HMS Albion and two other navy ships to help repatriate the 150,000 Britons stuck abroad due to the ash cloud.

Britain closed its airspace Thursday and was one of the first countries to do so following the eruption a day earlier of the Eyjafjoell volcano in Iceland, triggering the biggest flight disruption since the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.

British authorities allowed flights to take off from Newcastle airport in northeast England on Tuesday as well as from Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh airports in Scotland.

But restrictions would remain in place for the rest of Britain for airspace below 20,000 feet while initial plans to resume flights from London later in the day were shelved

The British government has yet to announce where it will deploy the two other Royal Navy vessels which it plans to deploy to pick up stranded Britons.

© 2010 AFP

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