- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico With a showdown looming over the U.S. Navy's prime Atlantic training ground, protesters who have blocked bombing for more than a year said yesterday that federal agents would have to arrest them to clear the range.

Supporters from the U.S. mainland, including Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, and Nydia M. Velazquez, New York Democrat, promised yesterday to join the protesters, and national and international church councils urged President Clinton to call off any planned raid.

Scores of Puerto Ricans kept a vigil at the main gate to the restricted Navy compound on Vieques Island, jeering at soldiers in passing vehicles.

With three U.S. warships offshore, the occupiers readied for what they called "the invasion."

"They are trying to create panic among the people with this deployment," protester Robert Rabin told the crowd, referring to the arrival of the warships reportedly carrying 1,000 Marines a day before. "The people of Vieques have determined that not one more bomb will be dropped here."

Mr. Rabin warned people to get rid of anything resembling a weapon even a pocketknife and urged them not to fight authorities.

"We want to provoke arrests," he told the protesters. "But we are not going to be fighting with the police."

Arrests planned this week would be carried out in an operation directed by the Justice Department, Pentagon officials say.

Protest organizers handed out goggles and petroleum jelly to protect eyes and skin against pepper spray. They also handed out small plastic bags, each with a rag soaked in a vinegar-water mixture to minimize the effects of any spray or tear gas.

The range has been occupied by protesters since a civilian security guard was killed by stray bombs in April 1999.

About 50 protesters at several camps inside the range are blocking a Jan. 31 directive by President Clinton allowing the Navy to resume limited training until Vieques' 9,400 residents decide in a referendum probably next year whether the Navy should leave.

The Navy announced yesterday that, under Mr. Clinton's directive, it will begin removing 1,600 tons of munitions from the western third of Vieques tomorrow in order to transfer the federal land nearly 8,000 acres to Puerto Rico later this year.

Army and Navy personnel will remove the conventional munitions in a 10-day operation, said Navy spokesman Robert Nelson. The Navy purchased its two-thirds of Vieques on the eve of World War II. Civilians are sandwiched in the middle third.

Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello who supports the removal of the protesters as well as the eventual closure of the range said local authorities were ready to deal with any unrest.

"I believe the Puerto Rican people won't participate in illegal acts," he said Monday. "However, we are prepared at any time … to establish law and order."

Most protesters planned to surrender peacefully. But a few threatened to scatter into the bomb-littered bush, raising the specter of a dangerous hunt.

According to local media reports, those arrested could face criminal charges of trespassing.

Four observers from the government Civil Rights Commission distributed fliers explaining protesters' rights if arrested. They said they would stay to observe any arrests.

The Pentagon insists that its range on the eastern third of Vieques is vital to national security because it provides live-fire combat training before every deployment of Atlantic Fleet carrier battle groups abroad, practicing precision bombing as well as amphibious assaults.

Vice President Al Gore said yesterday while campaigning in Atlanta that Navy live-fire training should be moved from the Puerto Rican island as soon as possible.

Mr. Gore also declined to say what should be done about the protesters or any plans to remove them.

Protestant and Catholic churches have thrown their weight behind the protest, helping erect a chapel inside the bombing range and calling on Puerto Ricans to support the civil disobedience.

The Chicago-based Pastors for Peace set up camp there over the weekend and declared yesterday, "We are willing to be arrested for what we stand for."

The U.S. National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches separately appealed to Mr. Clinton to call off any planned arrest raid and to order an end to using Vieques for "war games."

The Geneva-based World Council of Churches appealed to Mr. Clinton to "call a halt to this intervention immediately."

"The spectacle of police action backed up by the presence of warships and which is likely to involve arrests of church leaders will contribute little to the pursuit of a lasting solution to this problem," it said.

At an overnight Roman Catholic Mass, the Rev. Pedro Rafael Ortiz gave his church's blessing. "God wants us to be in this struggle," he said. "The Navy needs to repent for the evil it has done and not sin again."

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