A group of 30 experienced Puerto Rico National Guard engineers has launched a cleanup effort focused on areas of ecological and tourist interest on the island of Vieques, which the U.S. Navy used as a bombing range for more than 40 years.

Lt. Col. Ruth Diaz Calderon, spokeswoman for that military force, a component of the U.S. National Guard, told Efe that the group of experts began working Tuesday on the project and that their goal is to establish an eco-tourism project in a 393-hectare (970-acre) area of the island-municipality.

"Our goal is to improve quality of life and help with this project. We want the residents of that island to know that we want to restore its splendor" as a tourist attraction, Diaz said of the small island, located just east of the mainland of the U.S. commonwealth.

Brig. Gen. Juan Medina Lamela hailed the cleanup effort, saying that Vieques' residents "deserve the best quality of life" and that the National Guard's support would help restore an area with great eco-tourism potential.

The U.S. Navy used much of Vieques and the nearby island of Culebra as a bombing range for nearly 40 years until May 2003, and it also leased those areas to other countries for their own military live-fire training exercises.

The four decades of military maneuvers left munitions debris in waters off the island, an area of great ecological value.

Local groups say the high incidence of diseases and conditions such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension and respiratory ailments on Vieques relative to mainland Puerto Rico is attributable to the U.S. military activity.

The U.S. Navy, however, says there is a lack of objective studies to link the health problems to the military exercises. EFE