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Saturday May 20, 2000

NATO Navies Adapt To New Realities

PORTO SANTO, Portugal ( AP ) - Sunbathers enjoying the isolated peace of this tiny, semitropical island could only gape in awe as the military might of NATO descended for exercises.

While amphibious landing vehicles and a naval armada anchored just off the beaches, Sea King helicopters roared close to the water and F-16 fighter jets screeched over rooftops.

Residents of the island of only 5,000 year-round inhabitants joined in too, daubed with fake injuries to play the parts of wounded refugees in a fictional humanitarian crisis.

Operation Linked Seas was based on an invented confrontation between two countries - ``Yellow Land'' and ``Gray Land'' - in a scenario similar to real crises faced by international forces in Kosovo and East Timor. The 12-day exercise, which ended Monday, was part of training for NATO naval forces to allow them to react quickly to keep the peace in regional hot spots.

According to the story line, Graylanders under Gen. Vulgar were intent on protecting ethnic Grays in Yellowland who faced discrimination in an economic crisis. Their forces invaded ethnic Gray areas of Yellowland territory and NATO's goal was to prop up a fragile cease-fire and alleviate the suffering of persecuted locals.

Harrier reconnaissance planes lifted off from the Spanish aircraft carrier Asturias to survey the terrain ahead of helicopter landings to aid the evacuation of Yellowlanders driven from their villages by marauding Grays.

NATO special forces landed on the island ahead of the main operation to secure the airstrip and disarm Gray guerrilla fighters. Some 40 Portuguese soldiers played the role of the guerillas.

Moving inland with jeeps, they met and aided fleeing Yellowlanders running from their villages, many of whom hid in shacks built on the hillsides. Some were seriously wounded, others were in shock. Make-up artists made their wounds look very real for the soldiers who came upon them.

Makeshift first-aid tents were erected to handle the injured, while medical ships on standby offshore took in the more seriously hurt.

``The idea is to meet a series of challenges. ... The main thing is to get people water and food,'' said British commando Maj. Hugh Milner as he drove up to the village with supplies. The humanitarian mission had to deal with 68 injured people.

``We are all learning,'' said Portuguese Vice-Adm. Luis Mota e Silva, in charge of NATO's southern Atlantic forces. ``We have to make sure we understand the problems we might face.''

The 30,000 soldiers who participated came from 18 nations, including the United States, France and other NATO allies alongside new partners such as Romania, Georgia and Austria. They were backed by around 100 warships and 120 aircraft in maneuvers stretching from the French Atlantic coast down to Porto Santo in the Madeira archipelago, 400 miles off the coast of Morocco.

About 100 residents participated in the exercise, including Porto Santo's mayor and students from local schools.

``I was kicked out of my village, I fled and am waiting for help. I have not eaten for three days,'' said 20-year-old Sergio Silva, who played a refugee.

A real-life crisis intruded midway through the simulation, when the British aircraft carrier H.M.S. Illustrious and support ships were called into active duty to help bolster the U.N. peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone.

Mota e Silva said that the situation in the West African state was exactly the sort of operation NATO was likely to face in future missions.

Alliance officials said the operation cost more than $800 million, but was important to gauge the capacity of naval forces to tackle such post-Cold War risks.

``This is a new mission area for us, it is not what sailors from frigates and ships do regularly,'' said U.S. Rear Adm. Thomas Wilson, who commanded the U.S. ships.

``We are trying to find out exactly what our limits are,'' he said.