VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) â€” Federal agents in riot gear today peacefully removed protesters, including nuns and two U.S. lawmakers, from the gates of a U.S. Navy bombing range that demonstrators had blocked for more than a year.
The operation on Vieques island began at first light and proceeded through the morning without the violence some had feared.
About 200 FBI agents and 100 U.S. marshals quickly removed protesters at the range's main entrance, and agents in helicopters continued to a dozen other camps inside. Protesters at several sites within the bomb-strewn range were taken away in plastic handcuffs.
At a midmorning Washington news conference, Attorney General Janet Reno said agents had cleared eight of 12 protest sites and taken demonstrators to detention sites. Coast Guard spokesman Brent Erb said 168 people had been detained and were being taken to the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the main island of Puerto Rico. Fifty-two journalists were escorted from the Vieques range, Erb said.
Reno said the demonstrators will not face charges so long as they don't return and haven't assaulted federal officers.
The first resistance was reported late in the morning. Tito ``Kayak'' de Jesus, a well-known environmental activist known for his stunts, said he had chained himself inside a tank on the bombing range. In an interview with WKAQ Radio, apparently from a cellular telephone, de Jesus said he had surrounded the tank with unexploded bombs he found on the range to keep agents away.
He appeared to be part of an encampment deep inside the range where more radical protesters had threatened to scatter into the bomb-littered bush rather than submit. It was not known how many protesters remained free within the range.
The operation sparked a protest in Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan. Baton-wielding riot police on horseback stared down about 200 shouting demonstrators blocking the gates to the U.S. Army's Fort Buchanan. Protest organizers appealed for calm.
Early in the day, federal agents arrived at Vieques in vans with no lights. They were backed by glum-looking Puerto Rican anti-riot police in bulletproof vests, carrying sidearms and batons.
Efforts were made to avoid threatening language or gestures on both sides. Agents were armed with pistols or assault rifles carried casually on their shoulders, pointing down.
``You must leave the property immediately. ... If you do not leave promptly, we will have to remove you,'' a U.S. Marshal said over a megaphone at 5:15 a.m. Within minutes four helicopters, one with red lights blinking, swept toward the range and the protest camps.
``Puerto Rico has been invaded again,'' New York City councilman Jose Rivera said as he was led away by a U.S. marshal. He was taken away along with New York state legislator Roberto Ramirez and U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y.
U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., also was detained at a makeshift chapel of religious groups inside the bombing range. He said one Puerto Rican FBI agent was almost in tears as he handcuffed protesters.
``They are trying to be extremely kind and generous and courteous but I think they understand that they are wrong because they have lost any moral authority to use force against these people,'' a handcuffed Gutierrez said from the back of an open truck.
Catholic Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio said he and 42 other church representatives were taken into custody at one camp. ``The civil disobedience will continue,'' he said in a statement issued by his diocese.
FBI Special Agent Chris Whitcomb said people were being ``not arrested but removed'' from federal property and would be freed after they were given warnings that they would be arrested if they returned to the training ground. Guillermo Gil, acting U.S. Attorney in San Juan, said anyone trying to re-enter the range could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Whitcomb spoke from the camp of religious groups on Yayi Beach, inside the range. Several nuns lined up to be handcuffed there as they sang, ``Peace, we want peace and that we all love each other with the same equality.''
A raid to clear the base has been expected since Monday, when three U.S. warships, reportedly carrying 1,000 Marines, arrived in the Vieques area. Navy officials said about 200 Marines went ashore today after the federal marshals began clearing the range to set up a security perimeter. Small inflatable boats could be seen patrolling offshore.
Today's operation was the latest development in a standoff that has dragged on for more than a year.
Protesters invaded the range after two 500-pound bombs were launched off-target, killing civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez on April 19, 1999. The incident unleashed pent-up frustrations throughout Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 4 million Spanish speakers.
The Navy said Sanes was the first fatality in 60 years of exercises on Vieques. It says the Vieques range is vital to national security and is the only place its Atlantic fleet can conduct simultaneous air, sea and amphibious training using live munitions.
Opponents charge the bombing exercises here have damaged their health, coral reefs, fishing grounds and endangered species and have stunted development on the island, where the Navy employs only 100 local people and unemployment is 18 percent.
Today's raid came despite calls for President Clinton, his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton and the World Council of Churches to avoid a confrontation and instead hold an immediate referendum for the people of Vieques to decide whether they want the Navy to continue its exercises.
``I'm glad that it was carried out peacefully,'' Mrs. Clinton said today in Plattsburgh, N.Y. But, she said, ``the underlying problems about the continued use of Vieques are not resolved.''
Pentagon officials said today that the Navy intends to resume training exercises on Vieques within two weeks using dummy bombs, as prescribed in a January agreement between President Clinton and Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello.
Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Navy will need at least several days to repair fence lines, verify that no trespassers remain and certify that the range is safe to use. Then a training exercise involving a limited number of ships and aircraft will be held, officials said. They declined to specify a date.
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Links to Vieques activist groups: http://www.viequesvive.com/