SEOUL — A small group of South Korean protesters prevented a U.S. Forces Korea team from clearing target ordnance from a coastal bombing range Monday, protesters and military officials confirmed Tuesday.

USFK explosive ordnance disposal personnel and contract equipment operators were on Koon-ni Range to conduct an annual requirement to “remove target ordnance released from aircraft,” according to a USFK news release.

“This annual explosives ordnance disposal requirement, per agreement with the ROK government, attempts to remove all known surface hazardous items and unexploded ordnance.”

The U.S. team was met by “protesters who had put themselves at risk by entering the restricted area of the range in violation of Korean law,” according to the news release.

Hwang Ho-sup, the leader of Korea Federation for Environmental Movement — the group that occupied the island — told Stars and Stripes he fears USFK intends to save time and money by blowing up ordnance on the range before management is turned over to South Korea on Aug. 31. His group also believes USFK might attempt to “blow up” the entire range.

The USFK statement countered the argument.

“Media reports quoting USFK personnel have falsely indicated that disposal personnel had arrived to ‘blow up the island’ and are untrue,” the USFK release stated. “Small controlled detonations are sometimes used to ensure the safe handling of unexploded ordnance during the removal process, but public safety is paramount in all disposal operations.”

Hwang also said he believes U.S. officials aren’t following guidelines on the return of land.

USFK spokesman David Oten said that Monday’s mission was not related to the Aug. 31 turnover of management, part of the Missions Transfer Agreement, directed by the 34th ROK-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting in 2003.

USFK officials have also said that “although management of the range will be transferred to the ROK military … the U.S. will retain authority over the range while consultations continue on final disposition.”

Nearby residents have long complained about health problems associated with the firing, strafing and bombing that have taken place on the range for more than 50 years.

Pilots stopped using the range for strafing in 2000 and local residents sued South Korea in 2001. In January, a judge ordered compensation of $7.8 million to 1,900 residents of Maehyang-ni who suffered from the noise during the firing range’s five decades of operation.

While USFK officials said Tuesday they respect and defend the right to peaceful dissent, they added that Monday’s “acts to block teams conducting a routine mission to enhance public safety are misguided.”

The USFK personnel left the area and requested the Korean National Police remove the protesters, according to the news release.

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