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U.S. Warships Wait Off Vieques

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VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) — With a showdown looming over the U.S. Navy's prime Atlantic training ground, protesters who have blocked bombing for over a year said Tuesday that federal agents would have to arrest them to clear the range but promised they wouldn't fight back.

Scores of Puerto Ricans kept a vigil at the main gate to the restricted Navy compound on Vieques Island, jeering at soldiers in passing Humvees. With three U.S. warships offshore, the occupiers readied for what they called ``the invasion'' with goggles, petroleum jelly and vinegar-soaked rags to protect against tear gas.

``They are trying to create panic among the people with this deployment,'' protester Robert Rabin told the crowd, referring to the arrival of three U.S. warships — reportedly carrying 1,000 Marines — a day before. ``The people of Vieques have determined that not one more bomb will be dropped here.''

The range has been occupied by protesters since a civilian security guard was killed by stray bombs in April 1999, releasing pent-up frustrations throughout Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 4 million people. Arrests planned this week would be carried out in an operation directed by the Justice Department, Pentagon officials say.

The Pentagon insists that its range on the eastern third of Vieques is vital to national security because it provides live-fire combat training before every deployment of Atlantic Fleet carrier battle groups abroad, practicing precision bombing as well as amphibious assaults.

About 50 protesters at several camps inside the range are blocking a Jan. 31 directive by President Clinton allowing the Navy to resume limited training until Vieques' 9,400 residents decide in a referendum — probably next year — whether the Navy should leave.

The Navy announced Tuesday that, under Clinton's directive, it will begin removing 1,600 tons of munitions from the western third of Vieques on Thursday in order to transfer the federal land — nearly 8,000 acres — to Puerto Rico later this year. Army and Navy personnel will remove the conventional munitions in a 10-day operation, said Navy spokesman Robert Nelson.

The Navy purchased its two-thirds of Vieques on the eve of World War II. Civilians are sandwiched in the middle third.

In Washington, meanwhile, a Senate Armed Forces subcommittee was to consider a $40 million aid package for Vieques ordered by Clinton.
Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello — who supports the removal of the protesters as well as the eventual closure of the range — said local authorities were ready to deal with any unrest.
``I believe the Puerto Rican people won't participate in illegal acts,'' he said Monday. ``However, we are prepared at any time ... to establish law and order.''

Most protesters planned to surrender peacefully. But a few threatened to scatter into the bomb-littered bush, raising the specter of a dangerous hunt.

Protestant and Catholic churches have thrown their weight behind the protest, helping erect a chapel inside the bombing range and calling on Puerto Ricans to support the civil disobedience.
The Chicago-based Pastors for Peace human rights group set up camp there at the weekend and declared Tuesday, ``We are willing to be arrested for what we stand for.''

The Geneva-based World Council of Churches appealed to Clinton to ``call a halt to this intervention immediately.''

``The spectacle of police action backed up by the presence of warships and which is likely to involve arrests of church leaders will contribute little to the pursuit of a lasting solution to this problem,'' it said.

Protest organizers handed out goggles and petroleum jelly to protect eyes and skin against pepper spray. They also handed out small plastic bags, each with a rag soaked in a vinegar-water mixture to minimize the effects of any spray or tear gas.

Rabin warned people to get rid of anything resembling a weapon — even a pocketknife — and urged them not to fight authorities.

``We want to provoke arrests,'' he told the protesters. ``But we are not going to be fighting with the police.''

According to local media reports, those arrested could face criminal charges for trespassing.
Four observers from the government Civil Rights Commission distributed fliers explaining protesters' rights if arrested. They said they would stay to observe any arrests.

At an overnight Roman Catholic Mass, the Rev. Pedro Rafael Ortiz gave his church's blessing. ``God wants us to be in this struggle,'' he said. ``The Navy needs to repent for the evil it has done and not sin again.''
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