AFP - Britain announced Thursday a climbdown over settlement rights for Gurkha veterans, saying all of the Nepalese fighters who have served at least four years can apply to live here.
The amended settlement guidelines, announced by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in the House of Commons, were greeted by an explosion of applause and victory cries by Gurkhas and campaigners gathered outside parliament.
Gordon Brown has "made a brave decision on behalf of the bravest of the brave," said Indian-born actress Joanna Lumley, who spearheaded the fight against residency restrictions on Gurkhas who retired before 1997.
"This will be received in Nepal today with the greatest joy and gratitude," she added, standing in front of Gurkha veterans in wheelchairs wearing their service medals awarded by the British army.
Under the outgoing rules, Britain would only grant residency rights to 4,300 ex-Gurkhas, falling short of demands that they be granted to all 36,000 Nepalese ex-soldiers who served with the British army before 1997.
But announcing the new policy, Smith told lawmakers: "All former Gurkhas who retired before 1997 and who have served more than four years will now be eligible to apply for settlement in the UK.
"On the basis of the figure of 10,000 to 15,000 main applicants that has been suggested by Gurkha representatives, I expect to be able to welcome these applicants and their families over the course of the next two years.
"I'm making resources available... to do this and I'm making it clear there should be no time limit on these applications."
The government was forced to change its stance after it suffered a defeat on the issue in a Commons vote last month.
Smith said that after the defeat, ministers had undertaken to "respect the will of the House" and drawn up the new rules.
She reiterated that Gurkhas who retired after 1997 -- when their base was moved from Hong Kong following the territory's handover from Britain to China -- already had the right to settle here and more than 6,000 had done so.
Britain's border authorities have been instructed to process 1,400 outstanding applications from former Gurkhas "as a matter of urgency by June 11," she added.
Successful applicants would be entitled to bring with them their spouses and dependent children under 18.
An emotional Lumley said: "It is one of the happiest days of my life. This is a landmark day we will never forget."
She said she remained a "daughter of the regiment" because her late father had fought with the Gurkhas.
The star of the cult TV comedy "Absolutely Fabulous" has led the campaign, which has also been backed by the opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
As public anger built over the government's original position, Brown agreed to hold a private meeting with Lumley over the issue.
And amid extraordinary scenes, she ambushed Immigration Minister Phil Woolas in a TV studio after several veterans were told their residency applications had been rejected.
About 200,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in World Wars I and II and more than 45,000 died in British uniform. Around 3,500 Gurkhas currently serve in the British army, including in Afghanistan.