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Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Thu May 1 10:35:44 MDT 2003

After nearly six decades of bombing, U.S. Navy leaves island of Vieques

Associated Press Writer

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Hundreds of protesters broke through a fence at
the Vieques bombing range, waving the Caribbean island's flag and destroying
U.S Navy vehicles as they celebrated the end to nearly 60 years of U.S.
bombing exercises.

The militants stole Navy vehicles and smashed the lights and windows with
sledgehammers. They turned over a Humvee towing a boat and set them ablaze,
and also burned two American flags.

"Get out, Navy!'' they shouted.

The Navy on Wednesday handed its more than 15,000 acres of land on eastern
Vieques to the Department of the Interior, which will help transform the
range into a wildlife refuge.

President Bush announced in 2001 that the Navy would stop using the island
this year.

"We are here today to mark the beginning of a new era in peace and
prosperity for Vieques,'' Gov. Sila Calderon said Wednesday to thunderous
applause. "It is a moment of great joy, for we have achieved our dream.''

She announced she will ask Congress to put Vieques on the National Priority
List for a cleanup of the bombing range.

The eastern third of the land will be administered by the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, forming the largest federal wildlife refuge in Puerto
Rico. Another 3,100 acres, site of a former munitions warehouse on Vieques'
western end, was given up by the Navy earlier.

In the 1940s, the United States bought up 25,000 acres -- about two-thirds
of Vieques -- to make way for a bombing range, forcing out families and
farmers with scant compensation. Military exercises began in 1947.

However, some activists now want that land turned over to Puerto Rican
authorities. They say islanders should be allowed to open inns and
environmentally friendly lodges there to boost tourism and help unemployment
that runs at about 12 percent.

Simmering local resentment to the Navy exercises exploded in anger and
protests when two 500-pound bombs were dropped off target on the range and
killed civilian guard David Sanes in 1999.

Protesters stormed the range and occupied it for a year before federal
marshals forcibly removed them. The exercises resumed, restricted to dummy
bombs, but protesters continued to invade.

The cause drew celebrities including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., New York civil
rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Chicago
and actor Edward James Olmos. All were jailed for trespassing on federal
land, along with more 1,000 local protesters.

Sharpton, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, arrived in
Puerto Rico Wednesday to join the festivities and said he felt vindicated
after spending 90 days in prison in 2001.

Bush "did a good thing by finally listening to the people,'' said Sharpton.

Protesters say the bombing has fouled the environment, stunted an economy
limited to fishing and tourism, and damaged the health of the 9,300

The Navy denies its practices have been harmful.

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