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The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA
Vieques Security Worries Fleet Commander
September 10, 2002
Adm. Robert J. Natter said Monday he had indicated "my very serious concern" about the lack of civilian law-enforcement assistance by Puerto Rican police who have watched protesters assault Navy security personnel guarding a bombing range on the island of Vieques .
"Should the lack of law-enforcement responsibility on the part of the Puerto Rican police continue and somebody gets seriously hurt, or killed, then it is the responsibility of the government leadership down there," said Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet.
The Navy is in the second week of a three-week carrier battle group exercise, using the Vieques range for practice bombing.
Protesters, who want the Navy to leave, have hurled rocks and fired flares at Navy sentries while civilian police look on, the Navy said.
"I know there have been discussions with the leadership of Puerto Rico ," Natter said.
"I would like to see some action. Words are cheap."
The Navy has agreed to leave the range by May and conduct such training elsewhere after nearly 60 years of using the island.
Natter has recommended before that once the Navy gives up the use of Vieques , it should also abandon its support base at nearby Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico .
"But that is not my decision," he said.
While police detained seven people on Vieques in a rock-throwing incident on Saturday, they were released without being charged. Two police officers reportedly were slightly injured in the clash.
It was only after the civilian police officers were injured that protesters were detained.
No exercises were scheduled for Sunday, and there were no incidents Monday, the Navy said.
The latest exercises in the U.S. territory - the third since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - involve 10 ships, two attack submarines and some 80 planes in the Norfolk-based carrier Harry S. Truman Battle Group.
Natter also reflected on what the Navy has done to protect its assets since the Cole bombing on Oct. 12, 2000, and since last year's Sept. 11 attacks.
"I worry every night about the terrorist threat," Natter said.
Natter said he believes preparations the Navy took in ports such as Norfolk immediately after the Cole bombing have prevented attacks on other Navy ships.
Reports indicate that at least two of the Sept. 11 suicide aircraft hijackers - Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi - were in Hampton Roads, staking out military installations. Others did the same in San Diego.
"I think they weren't vacationing," Natter said.
To protect the fleet, Natter said, the Navy needs "to keep moving so that when somebody comes and sees our facilities and sees our ships, sees our waterfront, they say, `This is too hard.' "
He also said everyone needs to keep their guard up.
"I believe the best defense is an alert citizenry," he said. "If it doesn't look right . . . call somebody about it."
Natter has dispatched more than 60,000 sailors and Marines overseas in seven carrier battle groups and five amphibious ready groups since Sept. 11 and is ready to continue that pace for whatever time it takes.
"I am satisfied we are answering the call," he said.
About 6 p.m. Sunday, the four-star admiral, who lives on the Norfolk Naval Station and is known for unannounced arrivals, strolled down to one of the Navy piers, where he found a young boatswain's mate from Delaware on sentry duty.
"I asked him what he knew about his responsibilities there and was very impressed. I like what I see."Reach Jack Dorsey at jdorsey(AT)pilotonline.com or at 446-2284.