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Amid protests, Vieques bombing exercises resume

Activists who want the U.S. Navy to stop bombing exercises protest on Vieques Island on Friday  

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Destroyers and bombers

Exercise opponents confident of eventual win

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VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- Military police detained at least a couple of dozen protesters who broke through a fence outside a U.S. Navy practice range Friday, but bombing exercises continued.

Those detained were part of about 200 protesters who had gathered outside the range and threatened to confront the police as they demanded the range be shut down.

Earlier Friday, the Navy briefly suspended its exercises as a group of protesters entered the range. A Pentagon representative who asked not to be identified said the pauses were part of normal procedure and were not in response to eight demonstrators who managed to make their way onto a small island in the security area surrounding the range

CNN's Wolf Blitzer reports on the Vieques bombing controversy

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CNN Producer Allison Flexner said the suspension of exercises was caused by the presence of protesters on the range. She noted that officials in the command-and-control center yelled to the pilots, "Abort! Abort! Abort!"

In addition to the eight people detained Friday, the Navy said five others were detained on the range overnight.

Some military police officers were injured by protesters who hit them or threw objects at them, including one man who required stitches, said Lt. Jeff Gordon, public information officer for the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command.

Destroyers and bombers

The practice area is about nine miles from civilian areas, Navy officials said. About 9,000 people live on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

Navy officials said two destroyers from the Enterprise battle group were conducting air-to-ground exercises and would be firing "several hundred" rounds. Navy A-4 bombers from the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico also participated in Friday's exercises. The military used "inert" bombs which the Navy said would not explode.

The range, used for target practice since 1941, has been a battleground of a different sort since a civilian security guard was killed two years ago by an errant bomb.

Puerto Rico had sought a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to block the drills, but U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler rejected the arguments.

After the ruling, the Navy said it would resume training exercises at Vieques, and hundreds of protesters converged on San Juan, Puerto Rico, to signal their displeasure.

By Friday afternoon dozens of protesters beat drums, sang and chanted as they marched in front of the gates. A line of security guards stood between them and the bombing range on the eastern end of Vieques Island.

Exercise opponents confident of eventual win

Opponents of the Navy's use of the island said they were not discouraged by the ruling that allowed the resumption of the bombing.

"We have a strong case, a difficult case, but a strong case. ... I'm confident we're going to prevail on the merits," said Eugene Gulland, an attorney representing the Puerto Rican government. He said Puerto Rico hopes to resolve the matter through talks with the Bush administration.

A U.S. soldier looks down on the island of Vieques where the U.S. Navy has conducted bombing exercises since 1941
A U.S. soldier looks down on the island of Vieques where the U.S. Navy has conducted bombing exercises since 1941  

Kessler rejected arguments from attorneys for Puerto Rico that the coming exercise would inflict irreparable harm on people living near the range. The Department of Health and Human Services is studying whether the noise may be linked to some health problems in residents of Vieques.

Justice Department attorneys had argued the United States has the right to continue the drills while broader questions over noise are resolved.

Last year, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested as they sought to block use of the bombing range, protesting the accidental bombing death of a civilian there. In April 1999, a Marine Corps jet inadvertently dropped two bombs off target, killing a civilian guard working on the bombing range.

The Pentagon says it needs the range for combat training for Navy and Marine pilots.

"We continue to say that the training down there is very, very important. Realistic training is one of the reasons that the United States military is as effective as it is around the world," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley. "And Vieques is a superb training range, the best in the entire Atlantic for the uses that the Navy and Marine Corps need to put it toward."

He added that the training there "is absolutely essential to the value and the realism and the preparedness of our military forces as they prepare to deploy forward."

CNN Producers Allison Flexner and Paul Courson and Correspondent John Zarrella contributed to this report.

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April 26, 2001
Puerto Rico asks judge to stop bombing exercises
April 25, 2001
U.S. Navy notifies Puerto Rico residents of resumed Vieques bombing
April 21, 2001
U.S. Navy debuts radio program to inform on bombing exercises
April 14, 2001
Navy informs Puerto Rico it will resume exercises on Vieques
April 13, 2001
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November 5, 2000
Vieques protests flare anew; Navy detains 65 demonstrators
October 1, 2000
Protesters break down fence at Vieques range, are repelled by Navy security; FBI to investigate.
June 30, 2000
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Vieques Island, Puerto Rico
  • History of Vieques Island
Vieques Libre
Government of Puerto Rico - Office of the Governor
U.S. Navy
  • Activities on the Island of Vieques
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
  • Judge Gladys Kessler
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
U.S. Department of Justice

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