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Feds To Remove Vieques Protesters

April 25, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal authorities are nearing completion of a plan to remove dozens of protesters from a U.S. Navy bombing range in Puerto Rico, by force if necessary, government officials said.

The removal operation could begin as early as next week, the officials said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The presence of the protesters stands in the way of fully implementing a Jan. 31 agreement between President Clinton and Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello to permit the Navy to resume limited training exercises on the island of Vieques in exchange for a referendum on whether to eventually close the range.

At the time the deal was announced, Rossello publicly pledged to ``support federal efforts to assure that trespassing or other intrusions on the range cease entirely.'' Since the Jan. 31 agreement, however, no action has been taken against the protesters and the Navy has been unable to resume exercises.

On Monday in Puerto Rico, protesters promised no armed resistance, but they have vowed to replace any arrested demonstrators by cutting fences, sending in reinforcements by horseback or dispatching dozens of small boats to break any blockade.

Protesters will not resist arrest, said Manuel Rodriguez Orellana, North American Affairs secretary for the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which has maintained a camp in the bombing range since May.

The removal plan, which has not received the final go-ahead, would be directed by the Justice Department and involve federal marshals as well as FBI agents. Marines would be aboard ships off the coast to provide perimeter security, the officials said. Puerto Rican police would support the operation by performing crowd control and other duties.

Kenneth Bacon, chief spokesman for Defense Secretary William Cohen, referred questions to the Justice Department.

"There is nothing we can say about if and when'' the FBI plans to try to remove the protesters, FBI spokesman Bill Carter said.

Navy officials would not comment.

It is unclear whether any of the protesters possess or have access to weapons, but some have vowed to make federal agents force them off the property, which has been used as a bombing range for decades. It has been a premier training ground for Navy and Marine Corps aircraft and ships since World War II.

Carlos Romero Barcelo, Puerto Rico's nonvoting delegate to Congress, said in an interview Monday that he supports a move to clear the bombing range of protesters, although he was not aware of a specific plan. But he said he was aware of credible information that some protesters on Vieques may be armed.

"I hope that the protesters will fulfill their promises that ... they have no intention whatsoever of creating a violent confrontation,'' he said.

The prospect of a violent confrontation on Vieques is especially sensitive in light of the show of force used by federal agents last Saturday in removing 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives.

Protesters numbering from a few dozen to several dozen have camped on various parts of Vieques since April 19, 1999 when errant bombs from a Marine Corps jet killed a civilian Puerto Rican guard. That incident caused the Navy to suspend training, and months of negotiations ensued between Puerto Rico, the Navy and the White House over when and under what condition the Navy would resume bombing practice.

Protesters occupy several camps on the range. Their numbers can reach into the dozens depending on weather conditions. Last Wednesday they marked the first anniversary of the accidental killing of civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez. Mourners laid flowers on his grave and demanded the Navy's eviction.

There has been little indication from interviews with protesters then that they fear being arrested.

Jose Aponte, a university professor who said he joins the protesters on holidays, said last week, ``I will believe in the arrests when the helicopter lands and the federal marshals come out.''

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