British task force sailing to the Mediterranean including Gibraltar visit

Hundreds of marines are coming Gibraltar's way as part of a major British exercise. The exercise is called Operation Cougar and its first phase will be in the Mediterranean up to June.

The concentration of so many men and ships in this area of the world, with North Africa in a state of permanent upheaval, has led to speculation in British papers that it is all to do with the Libya uprising - and whatever happens next.

The MOD in Gibraltar has said that it can confirm that "we can expect a visit from two warships and a support vessel in the next few days. These ships are deploying as part of a long planned exercise. They will transit through the Mediterranean en toute for a subsequent exercise programme East of Suez and, during the course of their transit they are due to conduct exercises with Allies and partners."

The Royal Marines are deploying as part of the ships' complement to provide protection and to take part in multi-ship amphibious exercises. "We cannot confirm whether the Marines will arrive here by sea or by air," the MOD added.

Reports in the UK say that a task force of about 600 Royal Marines and at least six ships are about to leave for the Mediterranean region, massively enhancing the UK's military strength there.

Devonport-based assault ship HMS Albion is one of the ships.

Foreign Secretary William Hague denied the report that it is connected with Libya, insisting they were actually "preparing for an exercise elsewhere". That may be the case - but it must come in handy at this time of crisis in Libya to have such a task force so close to the trouble spot!

The assault ship is part of the Royal Navy's Responsive Force Task Group, which is deploying this month on Operation Cougar, the first phase of which will run in the Mediterranean until June.