April 3, 2002 – Some 23,000 military personnel are taking part in an intermediary training exercise off Puerto Rico this week that involves utilization of what the U.S. Navy calls the Vieques inner range.
Taking part in the exercise are the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, based in Norfolk, Virginia, and 10 other ships in its battle group, along with the aircraft they carry.
"They are preparing for regularly scheduled deployment into the Mediterranean and the Middle East region," said Lt. Fred Kuebler, spokesman for the Navy's Southern Command.
According to regional news agencies, the current exercise also involves the training of a thousand marines in helicopter landings.
The Vieques training range has been a flashpoint for Puerto Ricans and others protesting Navy practice bombing in the area. Military exercises had been suspended for almost a year following the accidental death of a civilian on the island. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the mainland, training resumed. However, there is now a significant difference: Under presidential directive, only non-explosive ammunition is being used.
Since the death of the civilian security guard in an exercise, Kuebler said, the Navy has used only empty shells in its exercises training warship gunners to fire on land- and sea-based targets.
Protestors have also returned to the area. As of Tuesday, five demonstrators had been arrested, according to national media accounts.
The current exercises are to continue for another week. Once the intermediate training is complete, the George Washington Battle Group will go on to advanced training later this year.
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