NAVY beginning new bombing exercises on Vieques despite residents' pleas

Thursday, August 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Plumes of smoke rose from warships that began a fresh round of U.S. Navy exercises on Thursday involving some 23,000 sailors, marines and soldiers despite pleas from politicians and residents to stop using the outlying island of Vieques as a target.

Before the bombing started shortly before 9 a.m. (1400 GMT), seven protesters broke into Navy grounds and headed for the bombing range in hopes of interrupting the exercises, the Socialist Workers' Movement said.

Vieques Commissioner Juan Fernandez said the exercises ``will be an all-out war scenario'' involving the ``most complete and dangerous'' maneuvers, though they are limited to dummy bombs.

The Navy said there would be ship-to-shore shelling, air-to-ground bombing and beach assaults involving 23,000 personnel, making the exercises one of the biggest since a civilian guard was killed by off-target bombs on the range in 1999. His death sparked islandwide protests that have drawn celebrities.

The maneuvers began with the USS Vella Gulf, a guided missile cruiser, and another ship firing 70-pound (32-kilogram) shells at the range. The exercises are final training for the Norfolk, Virginia-based Theodore Roosevelt battle group, which will likely head to the Persian Gulf or Mediterranean afterward.

``If something were to happen in the Persian Gulf, this is the final step in training that prepares the troops to carry out an effective combat campaign,'' said Navy spokesman Bob Nelson.

Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who served 30 days in prison for trespassing on federal land in an intrusion that stopped Navy exercises for hours in April, said he was embarrassed by the Navy's actions.

Kennedy, whose father and uncle _ President John F. Kennedy _ served in the Navy during World War II, was freed Wednesday from a federal prison and immediately flew to Vieques.

``I grew up with the Navy and it's been painful for me to oppose a service that was really an icon of my childhood,'' said Kennedy. ``But in this case, what the Navy is doing here is wrong, and it's arrogant and it's bullying and it's the worst face of America.''

Kennedy and New York labor leader Dennis Rivera, who also served a 30-day sentence for trespassing, encouraged protesters to do what they could to stop the bombing and exercises.

``The experience was a good one, I would encourage other people to try it as well, as many as possible,'' Kennedy said, speaking partly in the Spanish that he said he learned in a San Juan prison.

Last week, nearly 70 percent of Vieques residents voted in a nonbinding referendum for an immediate end to the bombing that takes place three to four miles from the inhabited areas.

``We will keep mobilizing the forces of peace,'' said Rivera, a Puerto Rican who heads New York's 210,000 member health care union.

Robert Rabin, an anti-Navy protest leader, said their resources had been drained by the referendum, but promised more civil disobedience.

``This time the acts of civil disobedience will be carried out with a firm base of support among the people of Vieques,'' he said.

Thirty percent of Vieques voters supported the Navy remaining indefinitely and resuming bombing with live munitions _ a protest vote against the alleged anti-American policies of the U.S. territory's Gov. Sila Calderon, who called for the referendum.

Only 1.7 percent of Vieques voters in Sunday's referendum backed President George Bush's plan for the Navy to withdraw in 2003 and continue exercises with dummy bombs. Vieques has 9,100 residents.

``We're not here to do anything other than to be a good neighbor and train our sailors and Marines, and we try to do that with as little impact on the local community as possible,'' said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Katherine Goode.

Years of resentment over the Navy's appropriation of two-thirds of the 18-mile-long (30-kilometer) island in 1941 and decades of bombing exploded in anger and protests when two 500-pound bombs dropped off target killed a civilian guard on the range in 1999.

Residents say the exercises have led to increased health problems on the island, a claim the Navy denies.