updated 6/6/2008 8:03:44 AM ET 2008-06-06T12:03:44

A new counterterrorism training facility operated by military security contractor Blackwater Worldwide echoed with the grunts of Navy sailors, a day after a federal judge ordered the city to let classes begin.

The 24 trainees batted and punched each other Thursday as they learned basic strike tactics in a corner of the 61,000-square-foot converted warehouse in an industrial area near the U.S.-Mexico border.

For the next three weeks, they’ll practice shooting inside a 25-yard indoor firing range and learn to wear sidearms safely while wriggling through ship hatches and up narrow ladders installed in white metal cargo containers stacked along one wall of the building to simulate a ship. Trainers from Blackwater will quiz them on distinguishing small boats carrying cargo from those carrying bombs.

The company sued last month because city officials refused to issue final occupancy documents without a vote by the planning commission, after building inspectors had already signed off on the necessary permits. Blackwater said it faced a Navy contract deadline and accused the city of caving to political pressure.

The company has been targeted by anti-war activists and Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., who opposed its proposed training camp for law enforcement in a remote mountain community east of San Diego. That project was dropped after firing ranges failed to satisfy noise restrictions, but Filner and others have raised concerns that Blackwater is simply seeking a foothold near the border that could serve as a base for providing private migrant or drug interdiction services to federal agencies.

Company expands domestic training
Blackwater insists the warehouse was built to provide the Navy’s “ship reaction force basic” training course as part of a $400 million contract. The program is part of an initiative to train sailors in counterterrorist defense tactics after the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in a Yemeni port.

“This facility supports our oldest customer,” said company Vice President Brian Bonfiglio, referring to the military.

Blackwater trains sailors from East Coast bases at its headquarters in Moyock, N.C., where it offers an advanced course using model ships floating in a private lake. It developed the California warehouse to offer the introductory program to sailors from San Diego, Guam, Japan and other Pacific bases.

Bonfiglio acknowledged that Blackwater would gladly host other agencies, including the Border Patrol or Coast Guard, at the warehouse, located in an unmarked building within sight of the border fence and the Tijuana airport control tower beyond.

“If we had a bunch of Border Patrol vehicles parked outside, they’d accuse us of trying to take over the border,” he said, only half-joking. “But I’d open up our doors to any law enforcement that needed training, if I could do it.”

The company has been expanding its domestic law enforcement training business, opening an 80-acre police training center in Mount Carroll, Ill., in 2007 to complement its 7,000-acre complex in North Carolina.

Work abroad under scrutiny
At the same time, Blackwater, the largest private security firm in Iraq, has come under increased scrutiny for its work abroad. Its guards are under investigation by a federal grand jury in Washington for their involvement in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians. The company is also under investigation for possible weapons smuggling, allegations Blackwater denies.

Democratic activist Raymond Lutz said those inquiries can’t be ignored when it comes to Blackwater’s domestic operations.

“To put training in the hands of private profiteers means that you’re giving up your ability to oversee what they’re doing and when you give it up you lose control,” Lutz said. “Why doesn’t the Navy train its own people?”

Bonfiglio said his five trainers offer students a depth of counterterrorism experience the Navy couldn’t match without pulling its own experts from other duties.

“What we do overseas needs to be separated from what we do in the United States,” he said. “Here we put all of our effort into developing training facilities that are unmatched.”

The pride of the facility is the mock warship area, where shipping containers are outfitted with red lights to simulate an onboard emergency and speakers blare clanking background noise during exercises.

On Thursday, workers were reinforcing a maze of wooden walls appended to the cargo containers at the request of city inspectors, who are still reviewing Blackwater’s application to use the simulated ship area under an amusement-park ride permit, Bonfiglio said.

City lawyers said the company misled inspectors by applying for permits piecemeal and under the names of affiliated companies instead of making a single application to open a training center with firearms. District Court Judge Marilyn Huff ruled Wednesday that the company did not need to seek special approval because the area is already zoned for vocational school use.

The city has not said whether it will appeal.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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