Warship rescue mission brings back stranded Britons

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Some 450 British troops and 280 civilians left stranded by the volcanic ash cloud finally made it back home Wednesday after a warship came to the rescue.

HMS Albion sailed into Portsmouth Naval Base on the southern English coast after a day-long crossing from Santander in northern Spain.

Uniformed troops mingled with civilians on the deck of the giant grey ship and Royal Navy personnel on board waved their white hats to relatives waiting on the shore as a lone bagpiper played to welcome the ship home.

The troops were returning from a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, while the civilians were largely holidaymakers left stranded by the closure of British airspace.

Pregnant women, those needing medical care, school groups and the elderly were among those given priority places on the ship.

The civilians included 31 schoolboy footballers from east London who had travelled to Madrid for a tournament.

At least 150,000 Britons were stranded by the Thursday to Tuesday lockdown caused by the Icelandic volcano eruption and fears that the ash cloud could wreck jet engines.

Following an emergency meeting of senior government figures on Monday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown -- who faces a general election on May 6 -- sent the Royal Navy into action on Operation Cunningham, a mission to rescue stranded Britons.

HMS Albion was pressed into service to bring back the troops and civilians from Spain, while HMS Ark Royal and HMS Ocean, the navy's biggest ship, are standing by.

When the ship left Santander at around 1130 GMT on Tuesday, flights in British airspace were still banned, but by the time they arrived, the restrictions had been lifted and passengers were jetting in from the world over once more.

© 2010 AFP

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