162 Protesters Detained on Vieques

Tuesday, June 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) — Protesters wielding steel bars injured two U.S. Navy sailors in a violent confrontation at sea Tuesday and 162 demonstrators were arrested while trying to disrupt bombing on Puerto Rico's disputed Vieques island range, the Navy said.

It was the first violent confrontation — and largest protest invasion of the range — since Navy ships and warplanes from the USS George Washington Battle Group began shelling and bombing the range with non-explosive ``dummy'' rounds on Sunday. The detained protesters were to be cited for trespassing, said Navy spokesman Robert Nelson.

Navy Lt. Jeff Gordon said the two sailors were hurt in an assault by protesters on five boats which surrounded a small Navy patrol boat just off the range. The protesters threw 12-inch iron bars at the shield-wielding sailors, injuring one in the neck and another in the chest, Gordon said.

He said the sailors were armed but didn't use their weapons and that the five boats escaped. The injured sailors were not hospitalized, he said.

``The Navy has it on film and the FBI will investigate the matter,'' Gordon said.

Ship-to-shore shelling of the range was delayed by 45 minutes, resuming at 8:45 a.m. Gordon added that Navy officials were confident they had removed all demonstrators from the bombing zone.

``I characterize these acts as very irresponsible, which put not only their lives at risk but those of our sailors,'' Gordon said.

Fisherman Cheche Ayala told The Associated Press earlier Tuesday that a dozen fishermen in five boats had tried to penetrate the area and were chased by two Navy patrol boats. He made no mention of a violent confrontation. All the fishermen escaped arrest, he said.

Opposition to the Navy's activities on the 21-mile-long island has unified islanders as never before.

Islanders say years of live bombing — including the use of napalm — have destroyed wildlife and fishing grounds, contaminated water supplies, impeded tourism and created what they say is a high cancer rate. Their objections came to a head last year, when a civilian Puerto Rican guard was killed on the range by two bombs — the first fatality in six decades of bombing.

Dozens of protesters invaded the range and took turns camping there for a year before federal agents dislodged them in May, peacefully removing 224 protesters. After that, President Clinton ordered the Navy to resume limited training on Vieques using non-explosive bombs and shells.

The Navy disagrees with protesters' objections and insists that the opposition is coming from only a small minority of Puerto Ricans, most of whom don't live on Vieques. It says Vieques is the only place its Atlantic fleet can hold simultaneous land, air and sea exercises with live fire before deploying abroad.

This week's exercises will certify the George Washington Battle Group's combat readiness before a six-month tour of the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. On Vieques itself, initial reaction to the start of bombing Sunday was surprisingly muted — perhaps reflecting the wear and tear of a yearlong battle to oust the Navy from its Atlantic Fleet training ground.

Guards arrested one protester inside the target area Monday, temporarily disrupting ship-to-shore shelling, Gordon said. Five others were arrested on horseback outside the area.

Gordon said the current exercises, which could run through July 2, were roughly 70 percent complete.

The Navy must abandon Vieques by May 2003 if Vieques residents vote to expel it in a referendum expected next year. If the Navy wins, it gets to use live munitions again.

Puerto Rican lawmaker Lourdes Ramos warned on Monday that the protests could jeopardize the referendum. But the San Juan Star on Tuesday quoted Jeffrey Farrow, Clinton's adviser on Puerto Rico, as saying he did not see how the latest demonstrations could affect the accord.

Puerto Rican leaders said they would raise the Vieques issue at a Wednesday meeting with Clinton in Washington.