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Puerto Ricans Protest Maneuvers by Navy

September 08, 2002|From Associated Press

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico — U.S. Navy fighter jets streaked across the sky Saturday, dropping dummy bombs and inert missiles on Vieques in the type of exercises that have divided this outlying Puerto Rican island for years.

In the first of three planned weeks of exercises, Navy destroyers San Jacinto, Briscoe, Mitscher, Deyo and Donald Cook fired their inert bombs without problems and received certificates for completing the training exercises, said Lt. Cmdr. Kim Dixon, a Navy spokeswoman.

Overnight, however, Navy officials fired tear gas at a few dozen protesters, who threw rocks and hurled burning flares over the fence into Camp Garcia, she said Saturday.

"Our soldiers responded to seven separate attacks of rocks and flares thrown by demonstrators toward the base," Dixon said. There were no arrests.

The military has used the bombing range on Vieques since the 1940s. Opposition to the exercises grew slowly until 1999, when a civilian guard was killed after a Navy jet dropped two off-target bombs. Since then, only inert bombs have been used.

Since 1999, hundreds of people have tried to thwart the exercises by trespassing on the bombing range, often being arrested, jailed and fined.

In the last week, authorities have detained nine people for allegedly trespassing. Five men, all affiliated with the Puerto Rican Independence Party, were jailed when they refused to pay a fine ordered by a court.

The bombing range covers 900 acres--less than 3% of the island--and is nearly 10 miles from civilian areas.

President Bush has promised that the Navy will leave Vieques by May, but as the United States moves closer to a conflict with Iraq, that timetable will be tested.

At least 27 members of Congress have urged Bush to issue an executive order guaranteeing the Navy's departure.

But even on Vieques, which has a population of 9,100, opinions about the Navy's presence vary.

Maria Angelica Torres, a 54-year-old maintenance worker, said she wished the Navy would leave immediately. She said the military exercises have prevented the island from pursuing economic development.

"There is no progress here, no tourism. There is nothing because the Navy is opposed to everything," she said.

Others, such as 67-year-old Jorge Carrillo, support the exercises.

"Why not stay if they don't bother anyone," said Carrillo, who was waiting at the post office to collect his Medicare check. "The explosions help me sleep at night. Thunder is louder when it happens."

Others, such as homemaker Maria Teresa Navarro, 69, are ambivalent.

"I can't say" if the Navy should stay or go," she said. "The Navy has been good to Vieques.... My husband worked [on the base] for many years."

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