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East Germans Demand Closure of Noisy Soviet Air Base

May 23, 1990

NEURUPPIN, East Germany (AP) _ Residents of this village are tired of the screeching and thundering from the Soviet military air base in their midst, and they are waging a lively campaign to get it closed.

A Soviet warplane that accidentally dropped three bombs on a neighboring village has added new fuel to the 2 1/2 -year-old campaign, which has gone public since the fall of East Germany’s Communist regime.

Thousands of demonstrators converged at the airfield this week, and a protest letter to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev will soon be on its way.

″We think it’s shocking that despite huge political changes, war is still being waged over our town,″ said Pastor Heinz Joachim Karau, who organized Monday’s protest of between 5,000 and 8,000 residents - estimates vary.

More than 7,200 people have signed a petition demanding closure of the base in Neuruppin, home to 22,000 people and about an hour’s drive northwest of Berlin.

While government leaders debate the likely pullout of U.S. and Soviet troops from central Europe, residents of Neuruppin say noise from the Soviet base has driven them crazy for years.

Windows rattle, houses shake, hospital patients are frightened. One doctor said children are subjected to possible mental disturbances from the fighter jet and helicopter noise.

″They say this is one of the noisiest areas in all of Europe,″ said 61- year-old Guenter Knoerr, a retired butcher.

Knoerr, his son-in-law and his grandchildren were among those who took part in the protest at the base, which is just outside the town center.

″When the MiGs started up, the kids came screaming into the house,″ said another protester who used to live next to the base.

During the demonstration, about 150 people raced onto the runway, where they briefly confronted Soviet soldiers. The march included mothers pushing baby carriages and young children riding on their fathers’ shoulders.

″We live right near the airfield, and we just can’t stand it. The windows rattle when the planes go by. We can’t even really watch television,″ said Knoerr’s 63-year-old wife, Marga.

On Wednesday, a Soviet warplane swooped in for a landing just above a moderately busy street.

Residents are well aware their protests would have landed them in jail as recently as last fall.

A massive secret police network kept residents in check under the regime of former Communist Party boss Erich Honecker, ousted in October’s peaceful revolution.

Before Honecker’s fall, Neuruppin residents worked out a scheme to make their longstanding grievances known. Since petitions to the government were forbidden, in December 1987 churchgoers wrote to their pastors.

The clerics then passed the letters of protest to the local Soviet commander, who responded with a one-page letter offering no hope of change.

″We thought it was all in vain,″ said Lutheran Church Pastor Karau in his cluttered study, with a large crucifix on the wall.

Then, four days after the Berlin Wall opened in November, 10,000 people gathered for a protest march.

That was followed by another march in January, when protesters hung banners saying ″Ivan, aren’t you homesick?″ and ″Playgrounds instead of landing grounds.″

Monday’s demonstration came just four days after bombs were accidentally dropped on the neighboring village of Raegelin. No one was injured, and the bombs did not explode, but two of them ripped through a barn roof and a third slammed to the ground near a lake where young people were sitting.

Soviet officials said the accident was due to an electrical failure.

″The bombs fell at just the right time,″ said Karau, 62. ″The demonstrators were really fired up.″

He said that so far, the Soviets have only trimmed back the number of late- night flights. The aircraft land and take off from 6 a.m. until midnight, residents said.

″The airfield would be a great place for huge rock ‘n’ roll youth festival,″ Karau said with a smile.

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