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Vieques Bombing Resumes Amid Violent Protests

Military: Angry Puerto Ricans breach federal grounds to try to stop the training mission, but their efforts fail to deter Navy. Dozens are arrested.

April 28, 2001|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Despite violent protests and reports of trespassers on the firing range, the U.S. Navy on Friday resumed its controversial bombing and shelling exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

The government of the American territory contends that the thunderous din from the training maneuvers threatens the health of Vieques' 9,400 inhabitants. But Thursday, a federal judge who ruled that no "irreparable harm" had been proved gave the Navy the green light to proceed.

"This is a sad day for Vieques," a Roman Catholic priest said Friday as he conducted prayers in the Puerto Rican town of Isabel Segunda.

Shortly after 9 a.m., five fighter jets from the carrier Enterprise dropped nine 500-pound, nonexplosive bombs on the range at Vieques' eastern tip, according to Navy officials. Ships offshore also fired dummy 5-inch shells at land targets.

The dispute over the Navy's use of Vieques as a target range for more than a half-century appears to have unified an unprecedented number of Puerto Ricans of various political persuasions. On Friday morning, eight protesters temporarily delayed the shelling by landing on an islet about 100 yards northwest of the target area.

Reporters witnessed at least two violent confrontations as hundreds of protesters at the entrance to the Navy's Camp Garcia cut through the fence in nearly a dozen places.

Young men hurled rocks and cow manure, and Navy guards countered with rubber bullets and pepper spray. In another incident, U.S. marshals used pepper spray after 32 protesters snipped through the fence. News reports from the scene said Puerto Rican police did nothing to block the protesters.

A spokesman for Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Calderon reported that another eight to 10 opponents of the exercises--including the mayor of Vieques and a member of the territory's Senate--had broken into the 920-acre Navy property and were hiding there.

Navy spokesmen said that there indeed might be intruders on the property but that the firing zone was clear. However, in a phone call to a radio station Friday morning, Mayor Damaso Serrano claimed he was "in the middle of the bombing range" and added: "We will hold the Navy responsible for whatever happens."

In April 1999, a security guard was killed when bombs aimed at the range missed their target. The accident generated popular fury in Puerto Rico--and what some analysts say has become the clearest-cut challenge there to U.S. authority.

The Navy insists that the training is essential for national security and poses no risk for residents of the island, situated off Puerto Rico's eastern coast. Vieques, according to Navy brass, is the only site where it can rehearse, all at once, amphibious landings, aerial bombing runs and ship-to-land shelling.

"Realistic training is one of the reasons that the United States military is as effective as it is around the world," Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said at a Pentagon news briefing Thursday. "And Vieques is a superb training range, the best in the entire Atlantic."

But Anabelle Rodriguez, Puerto Rico's secretary of justice, countered in an interview that medical studies have shown "there might be a relationship connected with the bombing and the number of diseases among the people of Vieques"--including heart ailments.

"For us in Puerto Rico, this is a human rights issue," Rodriguez said. "The health of more than 9,000 U.S. citizens is at risk."

On Monday, Puerto Rico's Legislature adopted a law that would ban the naval exercises because of the noise they make. The island's government claims that the 1972 U.S. Noise Control Act already empowers them to do so.

Protesters had occupied the bombing range after the guard's death but were cleared by federal marshals last year. Training resumed, but only with dummy munitions.

In November, Calderon, an underdog, was elected Puerto Rico's governor, in large part because she demanded an immediate end to the Navy training. Friday's bombing and shelling were the first since her election.

On Thursday, a number of Puerto Rico's most famous citizens carried the campaign against the Navy's actions into the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, where they purchased full-page ads. Among the noted singers, movie stars and athletes were Oscar-winning actor Benicio Del Toro; Grammy recipients Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and Jose Feliciano; baseball players Roberto Alomar, Carlos Delgado and Juan Gonzalez; and golf champion Chi Chi Rodriguez.

More than 40 protesters were arrested Thursday and Friday, including the eight who managed to hold up the Navy's salvos by landing on the small island near the bombing range. Navy spokesmen said the protesters would be prosecuted for trespassing on federal land.

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