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Pilot, Officer Blamed in Bombing

August 2, 1999 GMT

NAVAL STATION ROOSEVELT ROADS, Puerto Rico (AP) _ The U.S. Navy blamed an F-18 fighter pilot and a ground control officer Monday for a bombing accident that killed a civilian and triggered demands that the Navy abandon a Puerto Rico bombing range.

A report found that the Marine Corps pilot, whose name wasn’t released, became disoriented at dusk and picked the wrong target inside the Vieques bombing range _ an observation post _ killing David Sanes Rodriguez on April 19.

A Navy ground control officer cleared the pilot to drop his 500-pound bombs even though he didn’t make visual contact with the plane, as required by Navy rules, according to the report.

Sanes, 35, a civilian security guard, was standing outside the observation post when the two bombs hit on either side of him, 50 feet away. He was killed instantly. Four others were wounded.

Sanes’ death galvanized resentments over the Navy exercises on the outlying island of Vieques. The government of this U.S. commonwealth has since demanded that the Navy leave Vieques.

``What you had here was that two people made terrible mistakes,″ said Capt. James Stark, commander of Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. ``There was no willful misconduct on the part of either of those individuals.″

The 26-year-old pilot could face a court martial, said Lt. Col. David Wunder, staff judge advocate for the Marine Corps air station in Cherry Point, N.C.

The range control officer, whose name also was withheld, received a letter of reprimand and could face further discipline. He has since been transferred from Vieques.

As a result of the accident, the Navy is improving ground-to-air communications and increasing the observation post’s visibility, officials said.

Scattered clouds over Vieques confused the pilot, who changed targets twice while making three passes over the range before dropping his bombs more than a mile off target.

On the ground, the range officer mistakenly believed the F-18 was with another plane whose bombing run was on-target. He gave that plane approval to bomb, but didn’t see the second craft before clearing it to release its bombs, officials said.

Both had time to realize their mistakes before the bombs were dropped, officials said.

Since the accident, protesters have occupied the bombing range, which is littered with unexploded ordnance.

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``The problem isn’t going to be resolved by punishing pilots and officers,″ said activist Alba Encarnacion, who has led the Vieques movement to convince the Navy to withdraw from the island.

The Navy insists the Vieques range is the only place its Atlantic fleet air, land and sea forces can train simultaneously with live munitions. A Pentagon panel is studying whether alternatives exist.

In May, the Navy admitted it had mistakenly fired 267 rounds tipped with depleted uranium at Vieques in February in violation of federal laws. In July, it admitted using napalm on the island in 1993.

Officials stressed Monday that the accident occurred 10 miles inside the range, well away from inhabited areas of the island.

The next exercises are set for September, although all exercises have been suspended until the Pentagon commission completes its report.