Highlanders fear bombardment by US military

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For centuries Durness, on the north-west tip of Scotland, has had to live with the effects of warfare, from the Viking raids of the 8th century to secret training missions in the Second World War.

Now the scattered townships and farms that make up the 320-strong community, 10 miles east of Cape Wrath, fear the nearby island of Garve will be subjected to massive bombardment by the US military.

For more than 70 years the British military and its allies have used the Cape Wrath area as a live firing range. It is a situation the locals have come to accept, helped by the Ministry of Defence's efforts to keep them sweet.

However last summer an exercise involving the United States Navy condensed – in the words of one local – "30 years of exercises into four days", leaving many residents shaken and concerned that their wilderness home will become the target for increased military operations.

The concern has been heightened by the end of an agreement with the Puerto Rican government, made in 1941, to allow US bombing exercises on the island of Vieques. The island's 9,000 residents were claimed to have suffered abnormally high rates of cancer and infant mortality and dangerous levels of noise.

Since then the US has been seeking alternatives to Vieques and, despite denials by the Ministry of Defence, the Highland community of Durness fears that the firepower of the American military may now be directed towards them.

"Last summer was outrageous," said Monica Ross, a resident. "Bombs were missing dramatically and landing in the bay just two miles from the village. Fully armed jets from the USS Enterprise were flying so low over the houses you could see the pilots, and there were helicopters continually droning overhead. It made us feel we were under siege."

Eyebrows were also raised when a routine liaison meeting between the local community and military representatives was attended by none other than Rear-Admiral David Hart, the Deputy Chief of Staff for the US Navy in Europe.

"They say they are not going to treat us like Vieques but we don't trust them," said Ms Ross. "There's going to be another exercise this June which is going to go into July, right in the middle of our tourist season. The number of tourists who left last June because they couldn't get over to the Cape left the place deserted. A lot of the villagers are worried."

The Royal Navy Commander Bertie Armstrong, who is in charge of all Royal Navy establishments in Scotland, said: "Admiral Hart has said in words of one syllable that there will not be a repeat of last year.

"Some of the residents had concluded that because a two-star admiral was appearing at the meeting it must mean that it heralded extra activity, when in fact he was there to tell them it won't be happening again.

"I admit we had a problem last July," he added, but said that foot-and-mouth restrictions had led to a backlog of activity.