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Ex-Gurkhas cheer British settlement rights

world Updated: May 22, 2009 16:29 IST

AFP
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Retired Gurkha soldiers in Nepal on Friday hailed as 'historic' a British government announcement that the veterans can settle there.

Thecsaid on Thursday all of the Nepalese fighters who retired before 1997 and had served at least four years with the British army could now apply for residency.

"This is a historic achievement for all Gurkhas," Jit Bahadur Rai, treasurer of the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organisation, told AFP.

Gurkhas who retired after 1997 -- when their base was moved from Hong Kong following the territory's return to China -- already had the right to settle in Britain and more than 6,000 have done so.

But a vigorous lobbying campaign led by British actress Joanna Lumley, whose father served with the Gurkhas, had demanded that all 36,000 of the Nepalese who served with the British army before 1997 also be eligible.

"The new decision has made us proud. The British government has finally given us respect," said Rai.

The British government was forced to change its stance after being defeated on the issue in a parliamentary vote last month.

"We'd been fighting for our rights for the last 15 years and our dreams have come true. It took us a long time to get to this point but we're very happy," said Rai.

Nepal's Maoist caretaker government said the British government decision was a welcome step.

"Justice has been done to Gurkha soldiers who served in the British army but faced discrimination," Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara said.

The Gurkhas are renowned for their loyalty, discipline and courage in battle and service in the British army is a goal for many Nepalese in the impoverished nation.

The army recruited 230 Gurkhas last year but received 28,000 applications from young men who were subjected to rigorous physical entrance tests.

Nepal's ultra-left government has called the recruitment of Nepalese into the British and Indian armed forces "humiliating."

But Mahara said "stopping recruitment is not on our agenda for the time being."

"We need to draft a new national policy and hold diplomatic talks to decide whether to allow recruitment of Nepalese people into foreign armies and it will take time," said Mahara.

About 200,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in World Wars I and II and more than 45,000 have died in British uniform. Around 3,500 currently serve in the British army, including in Afghanistan, but the pensions of retirees support tens of thousands of people in some of Nepal's poorest places.

The history of Gurkha service to the British Crown goes back to 1815.

Til Bahadur Gurung, 65, a former Gurkha soldier who has been waiting for years to go to Britain, said he welcomed the announcement.

"My visa application was rejected three times by the British embassy in Kathmandu which said I didn't have strong ties with Britain," said Gurung, who served for nine years in the British army as a rifleman.

"Finally we've won the battle for our rights. I feel like this is a tribute to the courage, loyalty and sacrifice I made while serving in the British army," Gurung said.

"I will begin the legal procedures to get a British visa soon," he said.

"We were never against the British government. We were just fighting against the unjust and discriminatory practice in the British army," he added.