U.S. Navy Leaves Vieques Bombing Range

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Thursday, May 1, 2003



Yahoo News

Pictures of new National Refuge

By MICHELLE FAUL, Associated Press Writer

Vieques people victory march.

Wanda Bermudez

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico - Sending fireworks shooting into the sky, islanders celebrated the U.S. Navy withdrawal from Vieques and the success of a protest movement that helped force an end to nearly 60 years of bombing exercises on the Caribbean island.

Hundreds of activists jailed for trespassing to thwart the bombing prepared for their next battle reclaiming lands transferred Wednesday to the Department of Interior, which will help transform the range into a wildlife refuge. The Navy handed over 15,000 acres of land on eastern Vieques with no fanfare, just a written statement.

"We are here today to mark the beginning of a new era in peace and prosperity for Vieques," Gov. Sila Calderon said Wednesday to thunderous applause. "It is a moment of great joy, for we have achieved our dream."

She announced she will ask Congress to put Vieques on the National Priority List for a cleanup of the bombing range.

To show their continuing defiance to U.S. government control, dozens of protesters entered the seaside range in boats Wednesday evening, saying they want to "send a message ... that these lands belong to the people of Vieques."

Later, militants stole Navy vehicles, drove them to the gate and smashed the lights and windows with sledgehammers. They turned over a Humvee towing a boat and set it ablaze. They also burned two American flags.

"Get out, Navy!" they screamed.

They ignored warnings that the range is dangerous with unexploded munitions. People are "playing Russian roulette," warned Oscar Diaz-Marrero, a biologist in charge of the wildlife refuge.

Outside the gates of Camp Garcia, protesters yelled a familiar refrain: "Out with the Navy! Peace for Vieques."

Pulling large wirecutters out of their knapsacks, activists rushed to help federal workers dismantle a chain-link fence at the edge of the Navy's Camp Garcia.

President Bush (news - web sites) announced in 2001 that the Navy would stop using the island this year.

The eastern third will be administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, forming the largest federal wildlife refuge in Puerto Rico, along with 3,100 acres from a munitions warehouse on Vieques' western end.

In the 1940s, the United States bought up 25,000 acres about two-thirds of Vieques to make way for a bombing range, forcing out families and farmers with scant compensation. Military exercises began in 1947.

Some now want that land turned over to Puerto Rican authorities. They say islanders should be allowed to open inns and environmentally friendly lodges there to boost tourism and help unemployment that runs at about 12 percent.

Simmering local resentment to the Navy exercises exploded in anger and protests when two 500-pound bombs were dropped off target on the range and killed civilian guard David Sanes in 1999.

Protesters stormed the range and occupied it for a year before federal marshals forcibly removed them. The exercises resumed, restricted to dummy bombs, but protesters continued to invade.

The cause drew celebrities including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., New York civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Chicago and actor Edward James Olmos. All were jailed for trespassing on federal land, along with more 1,000 local protesters.

Sharpton, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, arrived in Puerto Rico Wednesday to join the festivities and said he felt vindicated after spending 90 days in prison in 2001.

Bush "did a good thing by finally listening to the people," said Sharpton.

Protesters say the bombing has fouled the environment, stunted an economy limited to fishing and tourism and damaged the health of the 9,300 islanders.

The Navy denies its practices have been harmful.