Archive for Sunday, September 8, 2002

Bombing exercises on Vieques, accompanying protests resume

September 8, 2002

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

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

Overnight, however, Navy officials fired tear gas at a few dozen protesters, who threw rocks and hurled lit 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 prized 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 bombs off-target. Since then, only inert bombs have been used.

After 1999, hundreds of people have tried to thwart the exercises by breaking onto the bombing range, often being arrested, jailed and fined.

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

The bombing range covers 900 acres and is nearly 10 miles from civilian areas.

President Bush has promised that the Navy will leave Vieques by May 2003, but as the United States moves closer to a conflict with Iraq, there are doubts about whether the Navy will leave as planned.

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

But 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.

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

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

"Why not stay if they don't bother anyone," Carrillo asked.

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