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by Chris Hawley

May 4, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES , Puerto Rico (AP) - Masked federal agents peacefully arrested protesters at dawn today at the gates to the U.S. Navy's disputed bombing range - including a U.S. legislator.

"Puerto Rico has been invaded again," New York City councilman Jose Rivera said as he was led away by a U.S. marshal. "I can promise you tomorrow there will be civil disobedience all over the United States."

He was taken away along with U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York and New York state legislator Roberto Ramirez.

Those arrested were taken to a guardhouse inside the gates of the Navy's Camp Garcia, where some held up their hands to show they had been handcuffed.

The Navy says the Vieques range is vital to national security and is the only place its Atlantic fleet can conduct simultaneous air, sea and amphibious training using live munitions. It has been blocked since stray bombs killed a civilian security guard in April 1999, unleashing pent up frustrations throughout Puerto Rico , a U.S. territory of 4 million Spanish speakers.

A raid to clear the base had been expected since Monday, when three U.S. warships, reportedly carrying 1,000 Marines, arrived in the Vieques area, looming ominously offshore before retreating a little farther to sea. The Marines reportedly would secure the range's perimeter once protesters are removed.

The agents arrived before dawn today in vans with no lights, and were backed by Puerto Rican anti-riot police in bulletproof vests.

"You must leave the property immediately ... If you do not leave promptly, we will have to remove you," Adm. Kevin Green, the training ground commander, said over a megaphone at 5:15 a.m.

Within minutes, four helicopters, one with red lights blinking, swept toward the range and the protest camps where dozens of protesters - including bishops, nuns and labor and independence leaders - have camped for a year to prevent more bombing.

The vast majority of protesters have said they would surrender peacefully. But some militants threatened to scatter into the bush around unexploded ordnance they have marked out - posing a threat to themselves and any pursuers.

It was not immediately known what was happening in camps on the bombing range. Among protesters there was another U.S. legislator, Chicago-born Luis Gutierrez, who maintained in an interview Wednesday that there was hope of preventing the eviction.

Gutierrez said he believed there was "a struggle going on (in Washington) between those who are responding positively to the wishes and claims for justice of the people of Vieques and another group that just wishes to arrest everybody and is with the military," he said.

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