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New Zealand Retires Air Force Jets

December 11, 2001

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) _ Jet fighters from New Zealand’s air force streaked over the country’s main cities Tuesday in a final farewell before its combat squadrons disband after 85 years of service.

Scrapped by the Labor coalition government, and with controversy still swirling over the decision, the Vietnam-era Skyhawk planes completed their final passes with engines roaring.

Only the capital, Wellington, missed out because high winds and driving rain forced cancellation.

Elsewhere, people crowded into streets for a last look at the fighter-bombers, which have never fired a shot in combat.

The fighter and associated training squadrons will be disbanded formally on Thursday and their 34 jets offered for sale.

In March the government said that in light of New Zealand’s ``benign strategic environment,″ it was disbanding the air force’s combat wing, cutting the country’s fleet of navy frigates to two, and refocusing the army to meet peacekeeping roles.

Australia and other allies warned at the time there would be ``international consequences″ for the government in reducing the strike capabilities of its armed forces.

The air force said Tuesday that 23 the country’s 28 front-line jet pilots are taking jobs with foreign air forces, with many going to Australia and Britain.

``There are other people after our skills ... and other air forces have a need for us, particularly the big ones,″ said Lt. Simon Rae, a Skyhawk pilot.

The opposition National Party, describing it as ``a black week″ for the air force, has promised to reinstate the combat wing if it wins back control of the government.

But Labor, supported by coalition partner The Alliance and by the left-leaning Green Party, has placed its emphasis on the army, committing more than $410 million for equipment to help it participate in international peacekeeping.

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