Commandos or ruthless assassins? Gibraltar inquest heightens scrutiny of British elite regiment
A RECENT cover of Britain's satirical magazine Private Eye shows three commandos poised for a rooftop assault. They're dressed to look like men of Britain's Special Air Service Regiment which shot and killed an IRA trio in Gibraltar last March. One hooded, gun-toting trooper asks another why he shot IRA man Sean Savage 16 times. ``I ran out of bullets,'' the soldier replies laconically. The suggestion that SAS agents would have pumped more lead into Sean Savage if only their favorite handgun - Browning automatic pistols - held more ammunition will no doubt confirm the British government's view that Private Eye covers are invariably in poor taste.Skip to next paragraph
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But the magazine cover, for all its calculated offense, reflects a growing concern in Britain about the shadowy activities of the SAS in its twilight struggle with the Irish Republican Army.
Is the SAS ``the world's toughest antiterrorist commando unit,'' as Time magazine once called it? Or is it, as the IRA and its sympathizers claim, a ruthless assassination unit that prides itself on taking no prisoners?
There was a time in Britain when the initials ``SAS'' meant nothing more innocuous than the Scandinavian Airlines System.
But all that changed on May 5, 1980, when the SAS stormed the Iranian Embassy in London as a nation watched on television.
The Embassy had been seized by Iranian terrorists opposed to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On the fifth day of the siege, black-clad SAS men, wearing respiratorsand carrying submachine guns and stun grenades, stormed the building. In 11 minutes they shot and killed five of the six terrorists and freed 22 hostages.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pronounced the SAS operation ``absolutely wonderful'' and said it made her ``proud to be British.'' But for many people in Britain, pride in the rescue waned somewhat when it emerged that the SAS troopers reportedly had killed all but one of the terrorists after they had thrown down their guns.
The SAS prides itself on its toughness; some call it ruthlessness. The regiment is the most elite unit in a country renowned for elite units.
Created during World War II, the SAS unleashed its destructive talents on German and Italian airfields in North Africa, destroying some 400 planes in lightning attacks.
After the war the SAS helped smash a communist insurgency in Malaya. Later the regiment fought in southern Arabia.
By 1970 the SAS found itself in the pro-British Sultanate of Oman helping suppress a Marxist-inspired rebellion.
During Britain's 1982 Falklands war with Argentina, the SAS returned to its first love: wrecking aircraft.
The British Ministry of Defence is silent where the SAS is concerned. The regiment is based in western England, but just how many men serve in it is unclear. Estimates put the number at 600 to 750, all volunteers from other regiments.
``I don't think they're your average moron with a machine gun,'' says James Adams, author of a new book titled ``Secret Armies'' on the SAS and other elite units. ``They tend to be taken on board ... because they're bright, can operate alone, and have got lots of initiative.''
Those aspiring to wear the regiment's sand-colored beret, with its winged dagger badge and ``Who Dares Wins'' motto, are put through grueling physical and psychological tests. Many an applicant's hopes die on a range on bleak Welsh hills known as the Brecon Beacons. Here aspiring troopers are subjected to brutal endurance marches.