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Federal Agents Gently Clear Protest from Bombing Range

By Mike Clary
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- VIEQUES, Puerto Rico

Wielding weapons, plastic handcuffs and common courtesy, federal agents in riot gear cleared a U.S. Navy bombing range of protesters Thursday, ending a yearlong standoff but hardly resolving an issue that has stirred strong feelings throughout the commonwealth.

There was no resistance, and no actual arrests were made in the raid that began with the Caribbean dawn.

Instead, about 140 people rounded up at several makeshift beachside camps on the bombing range, and about 60 others hauled away from an encampment blocking the front gate of Camp Garcia, were taken by boat to the island of Puerto Rico and released. They were warned, however, that they would face felony trespassing charges if they re-enter the range.

Among more than 200 persons handcuffed and ushered off the eastern end of the island were religious leaders, including Catholic Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio of San Juan, and two U.S. lawmakers, Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y.

Although no violence was reported -- and indeed, some protesters praised the civil attitude of 100 U.S. Marshals and 100 FBI agents -- the decision to round up the protesters sparked at least three street demonstrations, including two in San Juan, the island’s capital. As organizers appealed for calm, supporters of the Vieques protest faced off with baton-wielding riot police on horseback in front of the U.S. Army’s Fort Buchanan.

Later, in a plaza in Old San Juan, several thousand people gathered to listen to speakers, wave Puerto Rican flags and shout “Fuera Marina” -- Navy Out!

In Vieques about 300 people marched back toward the gate of Camp Garcia, but were turned back by police.

Pentagon officials said the Navy intends to resume training exercises on Vieques within two weeks, after sweeping the range to make sure that all protesters have been removed. Other offshore activities, including ship-to-ship firing and submarine exercises, are to proceed as scheduled.

Adm. Robert J. Natter, director of operations for the Navy staff, said Navy officials were “fairly confident” they would be able to keep protesters off the range, although he noted the area is big enough that “it’s not easy to patrol.”

After being released from custody, protest leaders also promised that they would continue their campaign to force the Navy to withdraw completely from the eastern end of Vieques, used as a live fire bombing range for almost 60 years.

“All indications are that the protesters have handled themselves in a peaceful and dignified manner,” said Attorney General Janet Reno at a Washington news conference. She added that the operation had gone “very, very smoothly.”

The 52 reporters and photographers escorted from the scene said the courtesy of the armed U.S. Marshals and FBI agents who arrived on the beach just after daybreak lent a surreal air to the operation. The raid had the trappings of a massive military invasion.

As helicopters buzzed overhead, and Navy gunships patrolled off shore, agents piled out of white vans and announced in each of the camps that protesters must leave immediately. Only a few resisted, forcing agents to gently carry them to waiting vehicles.