VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) â€” Several U.S. lawmakers were joining protesters today at the U.S. Navy's prized training ground to show their support as they waited for an expected raid by federal authorities to expel them.
``In the final count, we are going to win peace for Vieques,'' Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois told protesters in the bomb-littered range on Vieques island at dawn today.
Some 50 protesters on several campsites in the range and dozens more in front of its main gate say authorities will have to arrest them to clear the area, which has been idle since stray bombs killed a civilian guard in April 1999. A few have threatened to scatter into the bomb-strewn bush, endangering themselves and any pursuers.
Pentagon officials say a raid would be carried out in an FBI-led operation, and tensions have mounted since three U.S. warships arrived off Vieques on Monday, reportedly carrying 1,000 Marines to help secure the base perimeter once the area is cleared. Helicopters have been flying over the area, but authorities have given no hint of when an operation will begin.
At a briefing Tuesday, the Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, refused to answer questions about a planned operation. He defended the Navy's position that the inhabited island offers the Atlantic Fleet ``the opportunity to combine both the amphibious training, the naval gunfire training and the air-to-ground ordnance training.''
``Today there's only one Vieques,'' Quigley said.
That argument has failed to win over the Vieques activists, who enjoy broad support in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 4 million Spanish speakers.
The U.S. National Council of Churches, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches and the Pastors for Peace human rights group in Chicago â€” which sent several bishops and pastors to the bombing range this weekend â€” appealed Tuesday to President Clinton to reconsider any planned arrests.
``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,'' the WCC said.
The Clinton administration reached a deal in January with the Puerto Rico government to resume training for three years, using dummy instead of live bombs, and to allow a referendum, probably next year, on whether the Navy should leave.
Sila Calderon, San Juan's mayor, met today with Adm. Kevin Green, commander of the training ground, and proposed the referendum be held before bombing resumes. Green said he would ``carefully consider'' the proposal with the Navy.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez, also a New York Democrat, was to arrive at Vieques later today to show support for the protesters. Roman Catholic Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio of Puerto Rico was also due to meet Green today.
Speaking from Atlanta on Tuesday, Vice President Al Gore said he felt the Navy's live-fire training should be moved from Vieques as soon as possible but declined to say what should be done about the protesters.
Late Tuesday, amid speculation that the sweep was imminent, the Vieques protesters and their supporters began their nightly vigil at the gates to the range.
Among them was Susan Ravitz, 58, a social worker from Easton, Pa., who owns a house in Vieques and came to join the demonstration. ``It's historic because a small island, using no violence whatsoever but just the power of their cause, has been able to stop the hugest military force humanity has ever seen for 379 days,'' she said.
At the rally, many reiterated their willingness to be arrested. ``I'm ready,'' said Luisa Guadalupe, 82. ``We are American citizens, and we have rights. This is our land, and we going to defend it.''
The Navy bought two-thirds of the island on the eve of World War II, forcing much of the population to relocate to the English-speaking U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix.
``It was a war emergency. We had to help fight Germany, so many people said 'O.K. we'll make the sacrifice for the moment,''' said Nazario Cruz Viera, 89, who once worked on a farm on what is now Navy area. ``But now we're tired of it. They've stayed too long.''
Some 9,400 civilians live sandwiched between a Navy munitions depot on the western third of the 21-mile-long island and the bombing range in the east.
The Navy announced Tuesday that as part of the January agreement it will begin removing 1,600 tons of munitions Thursday in order to transfer nearly 8,000 acres of federal land to Puerto Rico later this year.
Yet not all here are against the Navy.
``The U.S. military defends the democracy in the world, and of course they're going to need a place to practice,'' said schoolteacher Matilde Rosa.