VIEQUES, Puerto Rico — Fireworks exploded and chanting erupted, but there were also incidents of vandalism as the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques held festivities Thursday to mark the formal end of its six-decade role as a staging area for U.S. Navy war games.
Just hours after the party got underway, a group of young masked protesters overturned and vandalized U.S. Navy vehicles, destroyed a guardhouse and set a U.S. Fish and Wildlife boat on fire, according to eyewitnesses.
The transfer by the Navy of its bombing range to the U.S. Department of Interior followed four years of protests sparked by the 1999 death of civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez in a botched bombing practice run. Hundreds of people gathered early Thursday at the entrance to Camp Garcia, a military base at the eastern end of the island, and, to chants of "Peace for Vieques," they pushed open the gates.
Some protesters burned an American flag, its stars replaced by skulls and crossbones, as they waved Puerto Rican and Vieques flags in the air.
Vieques Mayor Damaso Serrano condemned the vandalism. "These acts were an attack on the dignity of the Vieques people," the mayor said.
No arrests were reported, but Police Supt. superintendent Victor Rivera said officers would provide security for as long as necessary.
Ardelle Ferrer, a 51-year-old sculptor, called the violence "a very small part of a huge, beautiful celebration," adding that "everyone was exhilarated."
The festivities, including a religious service, drew politicians from all three political parties in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.8 million people where politics reflect differences over the relationship with Washington.
Since Rodriguez's death, about 1,600 protesters have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience, including intruding on the bombing range, staged to coincide with military exercises. The U.S. Navy acquired three-quarters of Vieques and displaced thousands of residents in the early 1940s for its range. About 9,000 people live on the island.
The $200,000 farewell party, paid for with donations from businesses and the island legislature, was to last through the weekend, with fireworks, concerts and religious services.
Under the closure terms, 14,000 acres of Navy land will be transferred to the Interior Department and used as a wildlife refuge.