Protesting US missile tests on atolls

Influence from the US antinuclear movement is being felt in a clash between the US military and some island landowners in the South Pacific.

The result: a potential disruption of a key US nuclear weapons testing range.

Some 1,000 Marshall Islanders are fighting both Washington and the Marshall government to try to get back land they rented to the US military for use as the missile test site. Angry landowners are camped on some of the 90 coral reef islands in the Kwajalein atoll - the landing sit for missiles fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base some 4,000 miles away in California.

But not all of the protesters are motivated by a desire to end the arms race. Some just feel they deserve higher rent from Uncle Sam, says lawyer George Allen of the landowners group, the Kwajalein Atoll Corporation (KAC).

The demonstration is something of a repeat of a 1979 protest that persuaded the United States to increase rent payments for Kwajalein from $750,000 a year to the current rent of $1.9 million a year. The new twist, however, is that some landowners now resist playing host to the development of more sophisticated missiles in the superpower weapons race. Influenced by the South Pacific antinuclear movement, Mr. Allen says, many landowners decided to ask for the land back instead of fighting for more money.

Allen says the living conditions are so terrible on the nearby island of Ebye , where most of the Kwajalein landowners have been sent since missile testing started in 1964, that many of the ''campers'' will simply stay camped out instead of returning home.

A Defense Department spokesman says the camp-out so far hasn't ruffled scheduled missile tests. While the protesters haven't shut down the missile range, Pentagon officials say they can't tell whether the protest will ultimately affect the missile testing.

The demonstration, dubbed ''Operation Homecoming,'' stems from anger at a May 30 agreement to go ahead with the Compact of Free Association between the US and Micronesia, of which the Marshall Islands are a part. The US was given custodianship of Micronesia after World War II. While the compact promises the islands more independence, it also allows the US to monopolize its military grip on the area, which experts agree is vital to US military strategy.

The tussle over the Kwajalein missile testing range has been an issue in negotiations for the compact. The US and all three governments that make up Micronesia - the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated Republic of Micronesia - signed it after 13 years of negotiation. Now, residents have to give their OK in a plebiscite expected soon - and the landowners hope to drum up votes to defeat the new pact.

Dick Teare of the State Department's Office for Micronesian Status Negotiations said he does not expect a sympathy vote from the rest of the Micronesians.

''I'm not saying they're not sincere in their desire to see all nuclear weapons stopped,'' Mr. Teare said. ''On the other hand, I'd have to note that these scruples arise when they're most dissatisfied with the financial arangements. I don't for a minute discount the antinuclear feelings throughout the South Pacific. But I don't think the people of Kwajalein have objected to the concept of missile testing before.''

In the latest move, a federal district court in Washington ordered the military to restore the water it had turned off in the area where the landowners have been camping since June 18.

The missile range is used for testing Minuteman and experimental missiles. The Army reportedly plans to use Kwajalein to test a new missile defense system that would be able to destroy an ICBM warhead with a nonnuclear interceptor.

The KAC, made up largely of landowners who say they feel they've been dealt a bad hand by the US, is holding its own ''straw poll'' referendum vote on Aug. 13 . The ballot question: whether residents want the military base to stay on Kwajalein. They say the rent paid by the US is too low to offset the bad living conditions on Ebye. They say living costs are high and population density is the highest in the Pacific. The disease rate is also said to be among the highest in the Pacific. There is no high school or working sewage system.

According to 1980 testimony in House Committee on Armed Services hearings, the military searched for an alternative to Kwajalein after previous troubles prompted by the low rental payment for the land and the bad conditions on Ebye. But the physical features of Kwajalein make it unique in the Pacific for missile testing, a testifier said.

The range reportedly cost more than $1 billion, with a military population of 25 and a civilian population of 3,000.

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