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NAVY watches Vieques firing range as protesters thwart bombing runs


VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) _ On a hilltop 500 feet above the Caribbean, sailors and technicians scan the island below using binoculars and telescopes to watch for protesters who claim they've been stopping bombing runs.

Spotting them in the thick brush can be hard from the glass-enclosed tower. Trespassing protesters interrupted bombing at least once this week, and Navy officials said Friday that the protesters were making their job a bit more difficult.

``It's a new challenge,'' said Gary Andersen, a civilian range control officer who has work on Vieques since 1981. ``In the past, it was a lot easier.''

Two decades ago, the Vieques cause attracted only a small group of activists and didn't involve the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who planned to visit Vieques on Saturday to show solidarity with the protesters.

Opposition to the bombing intensified after stray bombs killed a civilian security guard in 1999, with protesters saying the exercises harm islanders' health and environment _ charges the Navy denies. Protests have continued, despite President Bush's announcement last week that the Navy will leave Vieques in two years.

Six camouflage-clad protesters nursing bruises and cuts said they emerged from the U.S. Navy's firing range Friday after evading patrols since Sunday. They said they succeeded in stopping fighter jets from dropping inert bombs Tuesday and Wednesday, an account the Navy only partially corroborated.

``We did this to end the myth that the Navy is invincible,'' said protester Rafael Feliciano, a teacher. ``Despite their technological superiority, we beat them.''

Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Katherine Goode said there was no bombing on Tuesday because of bad weather, not the protesters.

On Wednesday, she said protesters only 400 yards from the impact zone launched a flare, triggering a search and later forcing airborne jets preparing for a bombing run to turn back.

Petty Officer First Class Duanne Cole, a reservist from Little Rock, Ark., said he spotted the flare on a nearby hill while working on security detail in the observation tower.

``The last few days, I've seen flares on both sides,'' he said. ``We've been doing 12- to 14-hour shifts.''

More than 20 people work at the observation post atop the hill known as ``OP1,'' or more commonly ``The Rock.'' Andersen said that with Bush's order to leave Vieques by 2003, ``We're concerned because potentially we're going to lose our jobs.''

But Capt. Steve Shegrud, who is in charge of the training ranges on and around Vieques, said the latest exercises ``are going very well.''

``We've had to stop the exercises,'' he said. But, he added, ``It wasn't as bad as April and May so far.''

In the previous round of exercises in late April and early May, more than 180 people were detained for trespassing.

In the latest exercises, which could run through the end of the month, authorities said at least 55 protesters have been detained.

Protest leader Robert Rabin said at least 10 demonstrators remain on Navy land and are trying to put themselves in the way of the next bombing run.
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