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Navy Resumes Training On Vieques

by James Anderson

May 9, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - U.S. Navy warplanes dropped dummy bombs at the military training ground on Vieques island Monday, fulfilling a pledge to resume operations despite protesters' claims that some of their colleagues were still on the bombing range.

The training - the first on the Puerto Rican island in over a year - came after 224 protesters were peacefully removed from the range, most of them during a raid by federal agents Thursday.

The protesters want the United States to stop using the island for its training, saying decades of bombing have harmed their health, stunted tourism, harmed endangered species and destroyed fishing grounds, coral reefs and mangroves.

But President Clinton and Puerto Rico 's governor had agreed that limited operations would resume. The renewed operations Monday were "in accordance with the presidential directives concerning training at Vieques ," Navy spokesman Robert Nelson said in a prepared statement. He said the aircraft used "air-to-ground inert (non-explosive) ordnance."

Protesters reacted angrily Monday and claimed that there were still several demonstrators still on the range, which has been patrolled by military security since Thursday's raid. Nelson said the Navy knew of no holdouts. The Navy has admitted, however, that six people were removed from the range Friday and Sunday and two more on Monday.

"If they start any kind of bombing, there will an immediate and large-scale response from the community," said protest leader Robert Rabin. "They know there are still people out on the bombing range, and they are not going to risk taking more lives."

The range is located about 8 miles from a civilian zone where 9,300 residents live.

"The people of Vieques are very indignant now. It is an act of provocation," said protester Angel de Leon.

Angel Morey, Puerto Rico 's secretary of state, said he had voiced concerns to the Navy on Sunday over the possibility of stray protesters being hit by inert ordnance. "Today's exercises occurred in open terrain and in a smaller area (than usual) to minimize" that threat, Morey said.

Word of the renewed training spread rapidly on radio talk shows in Puerto Rico , and opposition politicians vented their anger that Puerto Rico 's government had been secretly alerted at least two weeks ago that training would resume. Independence Party leader Ruben Berrios, one of those detained Thursday, and other protesters planned to return to Vieques Tuesday to plot strategy on impeding further training - including possibly re-entering the range.

Protesters occupied the Navy's Atlantic fleet range after civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez was killed by stray bombs during exercises on April 19, 1999. The Navy suspended its exercises after Sanes' death.

On Jan. 31, Clinton and Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello agreed to let the Navy resume limited training with "dummy" bombs. In exchange, Vieques residents will vote - probably next year - on whether the Navy should leave Vieques by 2003.

Rear Adm. Kevin Green, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, said Thursday that the Navy would scale back its bombing to a maximum of 90 days per year from the previous 180 days, and that only non-explosive bombs will be dropped. Those limitations were spelled out in the Clinton-Rossello agreement.

In the 1940s, the Navy purchased two-thirds of the 21-by-4 mile island, reserving a central portion for residents. Despite islanders' objections, the military has refused to stop training on the island.

The Navy argued that without Vieques - used to prepare for every U.S. military conflict since World War II - lives could be lost in an era of precision bombing. Vieques is the only place where the Atlantic Fleet can hold simultaneous air, land and sea operations with live munitions, the Navy said.

Vice Adm. Robert Natter said Thursday that exercises being conducted by the George Washington carrier battle group elsewhere in the Caribbean and off the U.S. East Coast were "deficient" in naval gunfire training. The battle group is scheduled to begin a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf in late June.

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