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U.S. Navy resumes bombing exercises on Vieques
VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- U.S. Navy battleships resumed shelling exercises Sunday on the island of Vieques off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico over the objections of protesters who had vowed to use "human shields" to stop them.
However, no protesters were in the target area, which was being shelled with inert ordnance, said Lt. Jeff Gordon, a public information officer for the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command.
"The Navy is confident there is no one in the area being used for shelling," Gordon said, adding that air-combat maneuvers over the island would also resume Sunday.
These are the first large-scale military maneuvers since a wayward bomb killed a civilian security guard in April 1999, setting off protests against the bombing exercises.
Aircraft and as many as five ships are expected to fire up to 130,000 pounds of inert bombs at Vieques. Gordon said the exercises began about 2 p.m.
'Human shields' remain, protesters say
Earlier Sunday, protesters had claimed victory because the military exercises did not resume on Saturday as they had expected.
"There's certainly a sense of victory here," protester Robert Rabin told CNN on Sunday. "We have won two more days of peace for Vieques." Rabin is a spokesman for the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques.
Gordon said 37 protesters were detained Saturday night for trespassing on military property, but he disputed protesters' claims that demonstrators remained on the training grounds.
"They're going to act as human shields to prevent the resumption of bombing," Rabin said of protesters.
Gordon called Rabin's statements "blatant untruths," saying the training grounds were secure and no one was in danger.
The Navy had issued public notices about the shelling and warned fishermen and boaters that several areas would be off-limits during the exercise.
Many Puerto Rican residents have demanded an end to the bombing exercises after last year's deadly bombing mistake.
Island is home to 9,300 people
Protesters, who want the Navy to give up the range, contend the bombing exercises harm the island's environment, stunt its economic growth and threaten the health of its 9,300 civilian residents.
The Pentagon said it needs the range, which it has used since 1941, for combat training for Navy and Marine pilots. Naval officials said the training ground is necessary for simultaneous land, sea and air exercises essential to ensure combat readiness of its pilots, sailors and Marines.
Demonstrators had camped on Vieques until they were removed during a federal raid on May 4. Since that raid, more than 250 protesters have been arrested on charges of trespassing.
The Clinton administration negotiated a deal in January with the Puerto Rican government to limit military training to the use of nonexplosive, inert bombs until the island's 9,300 residents vote in an as yet unscheduled referendum.
They will decide whether to accept up to $90 million in economic aid in return for allowing the Navy to resume exercises with live ammunition.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Puerto Rico says Vieques bombing resumes Wednesday; U.S. Navy declines comment
U.S. Department of Defense
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