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Russia: Environmentalists In Far East Protest War Games

Vladivostok, 31 March 1999 (RFERL) -- Pyotr Kolmakov, director of the southern Primorye State Marine Reserve, was sitting in his office this week when a frantic call came through from an inspector on Bolshoi Pelis Island. The inspector said that a battleship was sailing through a marine reserve that includes Bolshoi Pelis, and that MIG jets were buzzing the uninhabited island, as if preparing to bomb it.

Kolmakov called the duty officer for Russia's Pacific Fleet, and the navy pulled back from the reserve.

But the military decision to back down provides only small comfort to Kolmakov. He and other critics say that the Russian Navy is now bombing and firing torpedoes at other nearby islands and frequently targets Karamzin Island --deemed a "monument of nature" by the federal government.

The Navy denies it is targeting Karamzin. "Boevaya Vakhta," the Pacific Fleet's newspaper, says only that the Navy is conducting maneuvers this week in "a set area."

Kolmakov says that at this time of the year endangered seals are mating and a lot of endangered migrating birds are come to nest in the islands. He asks: "How can they do this if low-level airplanes are flying in and shattering the islands with shells?"

This year, for the first time, the Fleet asked the State Committee to Protect the Environment for permission to conduct exercises using live ordinance on several islands that lie near Vladivostok, the largest city in Russia's Far East with a population of 700,000. But, according to environment committee spokeswoman Natalia Myasoyedova, when the committee refused, the Fleet said that -- if headquarters in Moscow insisted -- it would go ahead and bomb anyway.

This year's exercises were also held earlier than usual, and more ships and submarines were involved than in the past. The Pacific Fleet has denied a newspaper report that this was in response to NATO attacks on Yugoslavia.

This is not the first time that the Fleet has drawn the wrath of biologists and environmentalists with its target practice. For decades, the Navy has blazed away, often without warning, when yachts were sailing nearby and even when people were working on the islands.

Naturally enough, the practice has enraged some who found themselves under fire over the years. Natalia Litvinenko, an ornithologist with the Biology and Soil Studies Institute at the Far Eastern Division of the Academy of Science, has been a critic of the maneuvers since 1970, when the Navy began firing without warning on Karamzin while she was studying birds there. The island is home to Russia's last 150 families of streaked shearwaters, Litvinenko said, and rare varieties of black-tailed gulls and Chinese egrets nest there.

Litvinenko says she was putting identification rings on birds' legs when the navy bombers roared overhead and started blasting the island. She jumped around and frantically waved to catch the pilots' attention, but they could not see her. Every two minutes, another wave of bombers swept over the islands.

Litvinenko said later that "the entire island was covered with a bloody mash of birds. I was covered all over with birds' blood. I found a crevice in the rock and hid there until it stopped." She was eventually rescued, she says, by some drunken sailors on a fishing boat.

Alexander Kosolapov, head of the Pacific Fleet's press center, told the newspaper "Novosti" this week that Kolmakov's claim that the Fleet gave no warnings was not true. According to Kosolapov, for scores of years the Pacific Fleet has held its maneuvers in Peter the Great Gulf and in the Bolshoi Pelis Island area. He said that "this territory belongs to us by law. Ten days ago, we warned the [marine reserve] territory that the area was closed to boats because of maneuvers."

The Pacific Fleet notes that war games serve an important military purpose. The newspaper "Boyevaya Vakhta" reported that the maneuvers will help preserve battle readiness for the nuclear-powered fleet.

Myasoyedova, the spokeswoman for the Committee to Protect the Environment, says her federal organization can do nothing to stop the bombing.

(Russell Working is a Vladivostok-based contributor to RFE/RL. Nonna Chernyakova also contributed to this report.)