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Mideast edition, Thursday, May 24, 2007

RAF MILDENHALL, England — A Bristol Crown Court jury has cleared two British men of conspiring to sabotage U.S. Air Force B-52 Bombers stationed at RAF Fairford on the eve of the war in Iraq.

Toby Olditch, 38, and Philip Pritchard, 36, both from Oxford, broke onto RAF Fairford in western England on March 18, 2003, armed with nuts and bolts they were attempting to lodge into the plane’s turbines to prevent the aircraft from continuing with its mission to Iraq, according to various published reports.

The two were nabbed by Ministry of Defence police while they were lying on the runway, according to a May 23 article in the Guardian newspaper, which covered the trial from Bristol.

But a jury took only one day to find the men not guilty of conspiracy to cause criminal damage, aggravated trespassing and having articles with the intent to cause criminal damage, according to a Bristol Crown Court clerk.

The trial was the second for the two men in connection with the incident. A separate hearing ended in a hung jury on Oct. 11, 2006, the court clerk said.

The two successfully argued that they were acting to prevent injuries to people and damage to property in Iraq, according to the Guardian.

Third Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Paul Fletcher released a statement on the ruling Wednesday following a query by Stars and Stripes.

“We have full confidence in the British legal system and the force protection provided in and around RAF Fairford. We have and will continue to work closely with our Ministry of Defense counterparts to protect our installations, assets and people,” the statement said.

Olditch and Pritchard are the latest Britons in a series of anti-war activists who’ve appeared in court in the past year in connection with crimes or protests against U.S. Air Force installations or aircraft.

Last October eight British campaigners were arrested for breaking onto nearby RAF Lakenheath, home to the 48th Fighter Wing, and chaining themselves to a fence. The eight are due to stand trial at Sudbury Magistrates’ Court next month on charges of criminal trespassing.

And last summer a rotating group of several dozen peace activists set up a semi-permanent camp outside the RAF Mildenhall gate to protest the alleged shipment of American arms to Israel via this base during the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon.

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