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Despite Protests, Navy Resumes Shelling Of Vieques


June 25, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) - The thud of military shelling returned to Vieques Island on Sunday as the U.S. Navy began training even as protesters vowed to invade the range to stop the largest exercise since a fatal accident prompted a yearlong occupation of its range.

At about 2 p.m., ships began shooting inert shells at the range, Navy spokesman Lt. Jeff Gordon said. The exercises are scheduled to continue Monday and Tuesday although they could continue through July 2 if necessary, he said.

Gordon said that notices were posted Saturday night and broadcast to mariners by the U.S. Coast Guard Sunday morning. The advisories were seven pages long and previous reports that bombing was to begin Monday could have been due to a misinterpretation of the lengthy notice, he said.

"The navy did notify the public in Vieques in an appropriate manner today," Gordon said.

Sandra Reyes, a 32-year-old painter who lives in sight of the range, said her children came running into the house screaming after the start of the exercises.

"My house is shaking, the doors shake, things on the table shake, my ear drums hurt," Reyes said. "We all feel very frustrated, impotent, violated and harassed."

She said three or four shells were hitting the range about every 15 minutes.

The Navy detained 38 people Sunday who had entered the range the night before after three ships from the USS George Washington battle group appeared on the horizon. Eight people remained in custody Sunday because they refused to identify themselves, Navy spokesman Robert Nelson said.

Protesters said at least 41 had entered the range, leaving the possibility that a few people were still in hiding on the grounds. Gordon said Navy helicopters checked the area before the exercises began.

"The Navy doesn't respect us and we have to put ourselves at the frontline," said environmental activist Alberto de Jesus. De Jesus said he was considering entering the range by boat.

The vice president of Puerto Rico's Independence Party, Fernando Martin, said he and other party leaders would enter the range in the next two days. Party president and prominent Vieques activist, Ruben Berrios, would not be joining the group, though, because he would be attending a Washington summit Wednesday on Puerto Rico's status.

Vieques activist Carlos Ventura said he would meet with religious, union and political leaders to arrange a peaceful demonstration on the small island at an undetermined time and place.

"We're preparing ourselves for a massive demonstration and we want you to give your support," Ventura told a crowd a protesters.

The April 1999 killing of a civilian guard on the range united Puerto Ricans as never before to demand the Navy end its six decade-long bombing of Vieques, a 21-mile-long island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. President Clinton has ordered the Navy to use only inert ordnance on the island.

Protesters pledged to block the exercises, which would drop about 130,000 pounds of inert bombs and shells on the range, which takes up a third of the island. The protesters claimed to have thwarted Navy plans to begin the bombing on Saturday.

The Navy has said the five warships taking part in the exercise will fire up to 600 rounds and aircraft will drop between 550 and 830 dummy bombs - including 500-pound and 1,000-pound bombs - during two to five days of exercises. They will then join the rest of their battle group in the Mediterranean Sea.

Opposition has mounted since last week's publication of the Navy's plans for the exercise - the biggest since the April 1999 bombing accident. Federal officials evicted protesters last month, and since then officials have arrested more than 200 for trespassing on the range.

Islanders say six decades of live bombing have caused environmental damage, contaminated water supplies, stunted tourism, destroyed fishing grounds and led to a high cancer rate.

The Navy says Vieques is the only place its Atlantic fleet can hold simultaneous land, air and sea exercises using live fire.

Clinton has ordered the Navy to abandon Vieques by May 2003 if the island's 9,400 residents vote to expel it in a referendum expected next year. If the Navy wins, it gets to use live munitions again.

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