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US NAVY resumes bombing exercises on Vieques

Updated:

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) _ The wife of the Rev. Jesse Jackson was arrested for trespassing during a protest on Vieques island, where the Navy has resumed exercises using dummy bombs. Activists insisted dozens of people had invaded the firing range, but the Navy insisted no one was in harm's way.

``For the people of Vieques!'' Jacqueline Jackson yelled as she was handcuffed after her group of six cut through the fence to break into Navy property.

Protest leader Ismael Guadalupe said about 30 people, including his 25-year-old son, remained on the range during Monday's start of the latest round of training on what the Navy calls its ``crown jewel.''

``They are there to serve as human shields to try and stop the bombing,'' he said, charging the exercises pose ``a threat to human life.''

But Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Katherine Goode said security patrols had found no protesters. ``If anyone is hiding really well, we hope they will come out and identify themselves so we can get them out of there,'' she said.

At least 17 people, including Mrs. Jackson, were arrested for trespassing Monday as protesters ignored President Bush's announcement last week that the Navy would withdraw from Vieques in two years.

Such tactics are part of a ``civil disobedience'' campaign that began after years of resentment exploded in anger after a Marine jet practicing in April 1999 for the bombing of Kosovo dropped two bombs off-target that killed a civilian security guard on the range.

The issue united all political groups in this Spanish-speaking U.S. Caribbean territory behind charges that the bombing harms islanders environment and health.

The Navy denies that and describes as unscientific the local studies that show Vieques residents suffer a higher incidence of cancer and other ills.

On Monday, Navy fighter jets roared over the Puerto Rican island and dropped 25-pound inert bombs in the first day of what could be one of the last exercises here.

Bush, in announcing plans to stop the military exercises on Vieques by May 2003, said the United States will start looking for an alternative to the island that the Navy says is ideal for lifesaving combat training in an era of precision-bombing. The range, strategically located southeast of the U.S. mainland, has been used in every major conflict from World War II to the Gulf War.

But protesters are sticking to their slogan ``No una bomba mas!'' _ Not one more bomb! _ demanding an immediate withdrawal.

Protesters claimed victory in delaying the bombing for several hours Monday. But Navy spokesman Bob Nelson said the exercise did not start until the afternoon because the Navy was planning and coordinating.

During the last exercise, in late April and early May, more than 180 trespassers were arrested. They included environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr., actor Edward James Olmos and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, who has been on a hunger strike in a New York jail since May 29.

Bush's announcement appeared to pre-empt a Nov. 6 referendum in which most of the 9,100 island residents were expected to vote for the Navy to leave in 2003.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday that though there now is no need for the referendum, it likely will be held since Congress passed a law to that effect.

Puerto Rican officials, meanwhile, plan their own nonbinding referendum on July 29, which includes the option of an immediate withdrawal.

Navy Secretary Gordon England reiterated Monday that the Navy planned to leave Vieques by 2003. ``I sincerely believe we will have an alternative place by that time,'' he said.

The Jacksons are co-presidents of the Rainbow/Push Coalition civil rights group.


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