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U.S. WARSHIPS ARRIVE IN VIEQUES, RAISING TENSIONS
May 2, 2000
VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) - Three U.S. warships slipped into the waters off Puerto Rico's Vieques Island before dawn Monday, rattling the nerves of protesters bracing for the arrival of federal agents to evict them from a disputed Navy bombing range.
Several helicopters flew over the range Monday morning, and nervous protesters blocking the main entrance to the Navy area formed a circle for a prayer group and then set to cutting up towels that they soaked in vinegar and water for protection against tear gas.
"I feel like they're preparing an attack," said protester Felicita Garcia, 65. "I'm not scared, but I hope everything goes peacefully."
Pro-independence leader Ruben Berrios, who has camped out for a year on the military training ground just off Puerto Rico, warned Sunday that an assault would exact "a high political price" - a reference to fears that a raid will unleash anti-Americanism in Puerto Rico and antagonize Hispanic voters in the United States.
There are perhaps 50 protesters in several camps on the range. Most, including Berrios, plan to surrender peacefully. But a few radicals have threatened to scatter into the bomb-littered bush, raising the specter of a long and dangerous hunt.
The Navy exercises in Vieques, which began in the 1940s, were suspended a year ago after stray bombs killed a civilian security guard, releasing a flood of pent-up resentments.
The Puerto Rican government in January agreed to let the U.S. Navy resume exercises for three years using "dummy" bombs and not live ones, with a referendum among Vieques' 9,300 residents to decide whether the Navy should leave. The protesters on the range rejected the deal, and expectations have mounted that federal authorities would expel them.
Tensions increased with reports that two ships - the USS Nashville and the USS Bataan - left Norfolk, Virginia, on Thursday and picked up 1,000 Marines in North Carolina en route to Vieques.
Early Monday, two U.S. ships appeared off the north coast of Vieques, accompanied by two Coast Guard vessels. Navy spokesman Robert Nelson would not comment - but the hull number on one of them was 13, corresponding to that of the USS Nashville, an amphibious transport. The Bataan is an amphibious assault ship.
The Marines reportedly would secure the perimeter of the bombing range once protesters are removed. The actual arrests would be carried out by federal agents in an FBI-led operation in liaison with the Justice Department, according to Pentagon sources.
An army barge also arrived carrying three vans of Puerto Rico's anti-riot police, who are to provide crowd control during the operation. On board, a dozen men in green uniforms were visible. In a channel farther out from Vieques, a destroyer anchored Monday, carrying two U.S. Coast guard helicopters.
Later Monday, the three warships steamed off to Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the main island of Puerto Rico, about 1 1/2 hours away given the glass-calm sea, and the barge deposited the police vans on Vieques.
A source close to the Coast Guard said they were preparing to blockade waters around the two-thirds of Vieques that is federal land - the eastern bombing range and a munitions store in the west - to prevent threatened reinforcements reaching the protest area by sea.
But protesters Monday repeated their promises to infiltrate the base, cutting through fences and riding in by horseback, to replace any demonstrators who are arrested.
"I will go anywhere I'm needed for the cause of Vieques," Rosa Garcia, 60, said from a protest camp that has blocked the land entrance to the bombing range for more than a year.
"We don't have weapons. The danger for them is the bombs that they themselves have put there," said fisherman Carlos Zenon, leader of one protest camp.
Some were worried about violence.
"There are always two or three people who are going to try to do their own thing," said Eunice Romero, 58, owner of Carolyn's Gift Shop. "Obviously, I wish the Navy would leave. But it's been a year already, and I wish this would end."