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Tense Sailing for U.S. Aircraft Carrier off Taiwan

March 13, 1996

ABOARD THE USS INDEPENDENCE (AP) _ Engines screaming, a steady stream of fighter planes shot skyward today from this aircraft carrier in a show of U.S. support for Taiwan.

China, seeking to intimidate Taiwan in advance of the island’s first direct presidential elections, has been staging elaborate military maneuvers off the island, including a predawn missile launch today, its second in six days.

With China-Taiwan tensions at their highest level in decades, the USS Independence was sent to its present position, 200 miles off the east coast of Taiwan, to send a hands-off signal to Beijing.

On the flattop’s huge flight deck, a succession of F-14s and F-18s took off on 90-minute flights, practicing air intercepts and bombing runs. Thirteen planes at a time were in the air, with the missions continuing day and night.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Bruce Williams, overseeing operations on the flight deck, acknowledged the China-Taiwan tensions were in the back of everyone’s mind, but said the crew was concentrating on the task at hand.

``What’s happening there doesn’t make me nervous,″ he said, shouting above the roar of fighter planes. ``I’m more concerned with keeping things safe right here on deck.″

``Of course we’re concerned about what is going on around us,″ said senior medical officer Richard Beane. ``But part of our normal routine involves being ready to respond.″

China is staging its war games in a 6,600-square-mile rectangle that stretches to the mid-point of the Taiwan Strait. The area is 30 to 70 miles from Taiwanese islands.

Rear Adm. James Ellis Jr., commander of the Independence battle group, said its seven ships came to show the U.S. commitment to peace in the region, but none was in the Strait and the group was engaging in ``normal routine operations.″

Although the Independence was leaving some distance between itself and the area of the Chinese maneuvers _ about an hour’s flying time _ officers said the carrier was close enough.

``People tend to think of ships as slow and lumbering, but with the power plants we have, we’re pretty fast,″ said the ship’s navigator, Cmdr. Dave Wirt. ```We could get to Taiwan in four hours.″

The U.S. military has said the carrier USS Nimitz and its accompanying battle group will cross the Indian Ocean and join the Independence and its battle group off Taiwan by next week. The Nimitz has been on patrol in the Persian Gulf.

The war games, which began Tuesday, have pushed China-Taiwan tensions to their worst point since the late 1950s. Taiwan’s 400,000-member military is on heightened alert.

The Independence, with a crew of 5,600 and carrying 55 to 70 aircraft, is based at Yokosuka, Japan.

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