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The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA

Fleet Boss Wants More Security, Admiral Fears New Bouts Of Violence At Navy Bomb Range


July 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA. All Rights Reserved.

NORFOLK - With a referendum on the Navy's Vieques Island bombing range this weekend and another round of naval exercises looming there, Atlantic Fleet commander Adm. Robert J. Natter is asking Puerto Rico Gov. Sila M. Calderon to increase security on Vieques .

In an interview Thursday, Natter said he was outraged by what he regards as the territorial government's poor response to security breaches during anti-Navy protests on Vieques this year.

"As long as people continue to throw rocks, as long as people continue to cut fences, as long as they stop public (Navy) vehicles whose occupants are accosted by locals, and the police are not doing anything about it, it is totally unacceptable in American society," he said.

"I would hope the governor would not stand for it, but so far I haven't seen that to be the case."

Protests at the bombing range have become more violent this year. In January, the Navy said, sailors sent to repair a fence cut by demonstrators were pelted by pieces of cinder block and lead weights. And in late April, young men threw rocks, welded spikes and cow manure at Navy guards, with news reports from the scene saying Puerto Rico police did nothing to intervene.

Natter said he was concerned that new protests would be spurred by the upcoming straw vote and naval exercises.

"I have a great fear that if the thugs are allowed and, indeed, encouraged to get out of control, somebody is going to get killed or seriously injured," Natter said.

He instructed Rear Adm. Kevin Green, whose command includes naval forces in Puerto Rico , to write Calderon's administration "asking her to step up to her responsibility" and provide adequate protection.

"Public statements not withstanding, we haven't seen the kind of responsiveness and commitment to public safety on Vieques that we would expect in other communities that, I think, are standard in American society," Natter said from his Norfolk headquarters.

A referendum will be held on Vieques on Sunday to gauge whether the island's approximately 9,000 residents want the Navy to stay or leave.

That vote is not binding, but its outcome would send a signal to the Calderon administration and the Navy.

Navy Secretary Gordon England announced last month that the service will leave Vieques by the middle of 2003 regardless of the results of a binding referendum, called for by Congress, that will be held in November.

Exercises involving inert bombs are scheduled to resume next week on the 900-acre bombing range on the island, just east of the main island of Puerto Rico .

The Navy has maintained the range for more than 50 years, but pressure to stop the exercises has been building since a civilian working as a security guard was killed by an errant bomb in April 1999.

Natter said the decision on whether the Navy would leave the range was a political one and beyond his control.

However, he said, if the bombing range is closed, the Navy likely will leave its larger base nearby called Roosevelt Roads.

"If we were to leave Vieques , I certainly would not see our current presence continuing to the level it is today," Natter said.

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