Navy Starts Final Exercises on Vieques

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World - AP Latin America
Navy Starts Final Exercises on Vieques
Tue Jan 14, 3:36 AM ET

By IAN JAMES, Associated Press Writer

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico - Protesters waved Puerto Rican flags and shouted "Navy get out!" as fighter jets dropped inert bombs over Vieques in what the Navy says will be its last round of training on the island.

F-18 and F-14 jets thundered high above the clouds, dropping hundreds of 25-pound bombs during the first day of exercises Monday. The training is to last up to a month, and demonstrators say they plan to keep up their resistance until the bombing stops.

"We have to continue with the struggle," said protester Eva Torres, a school administrator. "We haven't finished."

Security officers detained five men who broke through a Navy fence in protest Monday. Three others were hiding on Navy lands and would try to thwart the exercises, said Luis Angel Torres of the pro-independence Socialist Workers Movement.

For the military, the training assumed particular importance as the United States prepares for a possible war with Iraq. About 8,000 sailors were participating in the exercises, many of them getting ready for deployment to the Mediterranean.

The exercises have been sharply criticized by leaders in the U.S. territory since off-target bombs killed a civilian guard on the bombing range in 1999. Since then, the Navy has stopped using live ammunition and has turned to nonexplosive bombs and shells.

Emotions still run high. A brick hurled over a Navy fence by one protester hit a sailor Monday, officials said. He wasn't injured.

The Navy announced last week that it will move training to other ranges in Florida and elsewhere in the U.S. mainland when it leaves Vieques in May. The Navy has long said the Caribbean island is uniquely suited to simultaneous mock assaults by sea, land and air, and that replacing it would require several locations.

Navy officials also say they may close nearby Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, one of Puerto Rico's largest employers with some 4,800 employees and an estimated yearly contribution of $300 million to the economy.

While some islanders say they are concerned the Navy's departure could hurt the economy, many Navy opponents say they hope the tourist business will pick up in Vieques once the Navy leaves.

Protesters on Monday leaned out car windows in a caravan of more than 100 cars and trucks, honking horns and waving Puerto Rican flags. A smaller group of about 30 Navy supporters quietly held U.S. flags as the cars passed their encampment, where the strains of "God Bless America" blared from loudspeakers.

More than two-thirds of Vieques voters supported a proposal to halt exercises immediately in a nonbinding referendum in 2001.

The military held its first training on Vieques in 1947. Opponents say the bombing has stunted the island's economy, poisoned the environment and harmed the health of the island's 9,100 residents all claims that the Navy denies.

More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested since 1999 for trespassing on Navy lands.

Activists now say they are turning their attention to pressing for a thorough cleanup of the Navy lands, which comprise one-third of the island. The Navy is to turn over the 14,000 acres to the U.S. Department of the Interior this year.