LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Friday that the armed forces should be free to wear uniforms in public after one airbase banned them following reports of abuse by members of the public over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“I condemn absolutely any members of the public who show abuse or discrimination to our armed forces,” he said after the station commander at RAF Wittering told staff to dress in civilian clothes when they visit the city of Peterborough.
“They should be thanked for the great job that they’re doing, and they should be encouraged to wear the uniform in public.”
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The prime minister said the government would support police in taking action to ensure that soldiers can wear their uniform in public.
The reports of insults come as Brown is trying to foster greater public respect for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last year, he asked Labour MP Quentin Davies to conduct a review of public attitudes towards the military. Davies has toured the United States and Canada to see the higher level of support given to soldiers there.
No details of the alleged incidents were released. Cambridgeshire Police said they had received no reports of abuse against RAF personnel.
“If we did, then we would investigate them as we would any kind of public order offence,” a spokeswoman said.
Defence Minister Derek Twigg told BBC radio that the abuse came from a “small minority of people” and that he hoped the ban would be overturned soon.
The Ministry of Defence says individual commanding officers are free to decide whether soldiers should wear their uniform or civilian clothes while off duty.
Soldiers stopped wearing their uniforms in public in the 1970s because of fears of IRA attacks.
The abuse in Peterborough came from a cross-section of the community, according to a report in the Daily Mail. The city’s mayor Marion Todd described it as “despicable”.
Conservative Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox said most people “would be appalled to hear that there are no-go areas for our armed forces”.
RAF chief Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy said: “Whatever people’s views are about specific military operations, everyone should be able to recognise the bravery and professionalism of our armed forces.”
RAF Wittering is one of the RAF’s oldest bases. It was used to fight German Zeppelin airships in World War One and played a key role in the Battle of Britain in 1940.
(Additional reporting by Peter Graff)
Editing by Steve Addison
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