The British warship that dared to point its guns at the first lady

23 October 2011 - 04:23 By IAN EVANS: London
HMS Edinburgh Picture: ROYAL NAVY
HMS Edinburgh Picture: ROYAL NAVY

CAPE Town's luxury Table Bay Hotel was at the centre of an extraordinary stand-off when US secret agents accused Britain's Royal Navy of targeting Michelle Obama's presidential suite with missiles.

US agents, patrolling the V&A Waterfront during the first lady's visit to South Africa in June, spotted the Sea Dart weapons on board HMS Edinburgh pointing directly at the five-star hotel hosting Obama.

The US officials were reportedly overheard telling off the British sailors: "You can't point those guns at the first lady."

However, unbeknown to them at the time, the Sea Dart missiles were actually blanks and only on show as part of a ceremonial tribute to a British lieutenant who had died off the coast of Angola the week before.

The ship had docked in Cape Town so the female sailor's body could be removed and flown back to the UK.

The Royal Navy said the Type 42 destroyer, which had been on anti-piracy duties off the West African coast, was equipped with the weapons because it was at a ceremonial status, owing to the dead sailor's repatriation.

Royal Navy spokesman Simon Smith said: "The ship went into Cape Town at Procedure Alpha. This involved the drill missiles being on their launcher. The ship was at Procedure Alpha because she was carrying out a repatriation.

"American officials did visit the ship. They simply wanted to know if the missiles were live. When it was explained that they were drill rounds, they went away content," he said.

The drama played out at the end of June, when Obama was visiting Cape Town on the third day of a six-day visit to South Africa and Botswana.

Former Royal Navy officer Mike Critchley, who publishes Warship World magazine in the UK, said the US agents had overreacted.

"The secret service were totally over the top. They were sanitising the area for Obama's stay and clearly thought this was a risk, but I don't know why," he said.

"Once they realised it was a Royal Navy ship, surely they should have exercised a bit of common sense. You'd think they could trust one of their closest allies not to fire a missile into the first lady's bedroom."

The White House declined to comment on the incident, saying it never discusses security arrangements surrounding the first lady.

HMS Edinburgh was built in 1983 and is due to be decommissioned by 2014.

Sea Dart surface-to-air missiles can hit targets nearly 60km away .

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