Federal, Puerto Rican Agents Remove Vieques Trespassers
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 5, 2000 Federal and Puerto Rican law enforcement officials removed more than 200 protesters May 4 from the Vieques Naval Training Area off the east coast of Puerto Rico.
Pentagon and Navy officials would not say when training would resume on the island, but did say they hoped it would be within weeks. Protesters occupied portions of the impact area on the training range in April 1999 after an errant bomb killed a Puerto Rican civilian guard.
FBI agents and federal marshals began evicting the trespassers at 5:30 a.m. Attorney General Janet Reno said the agents were professional and praised the "dignity" of the Puerto Rican protesters. Federal agents transported the protesters to a Navy base at Roosevelt Roads, where they were released. Federal and commonwealth officials filed no charges against the trespassers.
About 250 sailors and Marines are on the range to provide security. "As the Justice Department people complete their work, Navy and Marine security people moved onto the island, and they will take over the security on the island," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said during a May 4 press conference.
Coast Guard vessels are policing a three-nautical-mile zone around the impact area, Bacon said. "They have turned away nine vessels that tried to penetrate the zone, warning them in English and in Spanish before the boats turned away," he said. The Puerto Rican Maritime Police also intercepted a boat.
Vice Adm. Bob Natter, director of operations, plans and policy on the Navy Staff, said security details would become permanent fixtures at the range. He said security details would rotate in and out of Vieques from Roosevelt Roads.
Federal and commonwealth agents removed 140 trespassers from the impact area and another 64 from the main gate of the range at Camp Garcia.
Now that the protesters have been removed, the Navy can begin training at the range. However, they will use only inert ordnance. The residents of Vieques will vote in a referendum on whether the Navy stays on the island or must leave. According to the terms of an agreement between the president and Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello, the referendum can happen as early as Aug. 1 or as late as January 2002. The Navy will write the referendum.
Alternative sites scouted by the Navy don't provide the training opportunities available at Vieques, Natter said. "The training we're conducting right now with the (USS) George Washington Battle Group is deficient in the naval surface fire support training, the gunnery training, it is deficient in the coordinated maneuver of Marine and naval forces ashore," he said. "And so, ... we don't have the adequate training to the level that has been heretofore provided by Vieques."
Natter said the Navy would continue to look for alternative sites.