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US Navy Plans Immediate Shelling of Vieques
April 27, 2000
By Stewart M Powell
Navy warships will immediately fire non-explosive shells at the target range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as soon as federal authorities remove encamped Puerto Rican demonstrators, defense officials said Thursday. Three defense officials outlined the Navy's plans for a quick show of force as a Justice Department-led task force prepared to end a year-long occupation of the 899-acre target range that has thwarted Navy training on the range.
The task force, including FBI agents, U.S. Marshals, the Coast Guard, the Navy and 1,200 Marines, is expected to begin rounding up protestors early next week, according to a fourth U.S. official who said he is familiar with coordination planning between law enforcement agencies on the U.S. mainland and in Puerto Rico.
Navy warships will begin using the 59-year-old range "as quickly as possible" after the law enforcement operation is complete, said one defense official. A second defense official said the Navy wants to "demonstrate use of the range in a prudent fashion as soon as we can just to get that principle established or restarted."
A third defense official said the Navy would "be in a hurry to make a statement by using the range."
The three officials spoke on background on the condition that their identity not be disclosed.
Attorney General Janet Reno, speaking at a Justice Department news conference, declined to discuss the impending operation.
"I don't comment on any prospective, or otherwise considered, law enforcement action," Reno declared.
Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Pentagon has been in "consultation with the Puerto Rican government (and) with the Department of Justice to work out a way to clear the range of the trespassers," adding: "That process continues."
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., the senior Puerto Rico-born lawmaker in Congress, urged Clinton in a letter to halt the plans for a federal round up.
"This is not going to be nice," warned Serrano. "It's not too late to call the whole thing off."
A federal raid to break up peaceful civil disobedience on Vieques would likely be a hot campaign issue for the 900,000 Puerto Rican voters in New York who could play an influential role in the outcome of the Senate campaign of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Serrano said.
"What happens in Vieques affects greatly the largest Hispanic voting bloc in New York," he said. Many of Puerto Rico's 3.8 million residents - U.S. citizens by birth - have relatives living in the United States.
The removal of the protestors is designed to clear the way for implementation of an agreement reached by President Clinton and Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello on Jan. 31 to end a bitter standoff between the Navy and the demonstrators.
Dozens of protestors, led by Puerto Rico Sen. Ruben Berrios, the Puerto Rico Independence Party's candidate for governor in November, occupied the beach-front bombing range after a Marine bombing mishap in April 1999 killed a Puerto Rican security guard working for the Navy.
The occupation of the target range prevented the Navy and Marine Corps from conducting the final air, land and sea combat rehearsals on Vieques that have prepared every departing Atlantic-based combat force since World War II.
The Clinton-Rossello agreement calls for the White House and Congress to provide $40 million in immediate economic development assistance to the 9,300 residents of Vieques and reduce noisy military training on Navy-owned land to 90 days a year using only non-explosive shells and bombs. The accord also calls for the island's residents to vote in a binding referendum on future Navy use of the island by February, 2002, with $50 million in additional U.S. assistance due to Vieques if the residents vote to permit combat training with explosive ordnance.
The forcible removal of protestors is expected to take place barely 10 days after a Justice Department-led operation broke into a Miami home to take custody of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez and return him to his Cuban father.
The Navy is poised to resume using the range. Four warships armed with 5-inch guns with ranges of 15 miles will be in the region in coming days as part of a combat exercise with the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and a Marine amphibious task force. The armada is scheduled for deployment in June to the Mediterranean.
Navy Secretary Richard Danzig told Congress in testimony on March 22 that the Navy is eager for "the resumption of the use of the range and establishing the rhythms of cooperation."
The shutdown of the target range since April 1999 forced the battle fleet led by the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower to sail for duty in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf in late February with five of the eight escorting surface warships still needing to requalify for their naval gunfire support mission by firing roughly 100 shells of 5-inch ammunition at shore targets. The ships broke away from the fleet in transit to requalify at ranges at Cape Wrath, Scotland, or Capoteulado, Sardinia.
© 2000 Hearst Newspapers
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