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Associated Press Newswires

U.S. Navy Plans Training Exercise For Battle Group; Vieques Has Been Used In Past

December 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Associated Press Newswires. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and its battle group will hold a training exercise next month to prepare for deployment to the Mediterranean and Middle East, a U.S. Navy spokesman said Wednesday.

The Navy would not say where the training would be held for security reasons, said Lt. Fred Kuebler, a spokesman for the Second Fleet in Norfolk, Virginia. In the past, however, such bombing exercises have been held at the U.S. Navy's firing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques .

"We haven't put out the specific dates of the exercise yet," Kuebler said. If Vieques is to be used, the Navy would contact the Puerto Rican government ahead of time, according to usual procedure, he said.

Opponents of the Vieques bombing exercises have said they harm the environment and the health of the island's 9,100 residents. The Navy denies the accusations, but President George W. Bush has pledged that training on Vieques will halt by March.

Protests against the bombing exercises surged in the U.S. territory in 1999, when a civilian security guard was killed by off-target bombs on the firing range. Since then the Navy has used only inert bombs.

Hundreds of opponents have been arrested and jailed for trespassing on Navy lands while protesting. Puerto Rico 's government also has pressed for an end to the training.

The Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group, of about a dozen ships, is scheduled to relieve the Harry S. Truman Battle Group from duty in the Mediterranean and Middle East, Kuebler said.

Next month's training is to ensure the battle group functions "as one cohesive fighting unit," he said.

About 20 anti-Navy activists, meanwhile, have set up a protest camp on a barren key off Vieques and have promised to keep a presence there to protest exercises.

Key la Yayi, about 45 minutes by powerboat from Vieques , is open to the public year-round, except when the Navy is conducting exercises and the area falls under Navy-designated "danger zone."

The Navy, however, is unable to interfere with the protesters since a May court decision confirmed the land was under Puerto Rican government jurisdiction, and not that of the Navy.

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