Vieques Protesters Get Violent; Two Sailors Hurt

By Bob Melvin | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - Protesters brandishing steel bars and other hand-held scrap weapons injured two US sailors in a violent confrontation Tuesday over renewed training exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Authorities arrested 162 demonstrators who tried to disrupt naval ship and air bombings on the island's training range, according to a US Navy official.

It was the largest demonstration, and the largest protest invasion, at Vieques. Opposition to the Navy's activities on the 21-mile-long island has unified native islanders and mainland pacifists as never before.

Wire services report that islanders say years of live bombing, including the use of napalm, have destroyed wildlife and fishing grounds, contaminated water supplies, impeded tourism and created what they say is a high cancer rate.

Islanders and protestors' objections came to a head last year when a civilian Puerto Rican security guard was killed on the range by two stray bombs, the first fatality in six decades of bombing at the training range.

Dozens of protesters invaded the range and took turns camping there for a year before federal agents dislodged them in May, peacefully removing 224 protesters. After that, President Clinton ordered the Navy to resume limited training on Vieques using non-explosive bombs and shells.

The Navy disagrees with protesters' objections and insists that the opposition is coming from only a small minority of Puerto Ricans, most of whom don't live on Vieques.

The Navy says Vieques is the only place its Atlantic fleet can hold simultaneous land, air and sea exercises with live fire before deploying abroad.

This week's exercises will certify the George Washington Battle Group's combat readiness before a six-month tour of the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. On Vieques itself, initial reaction to the start of bombing Sunday was surprisingly muted, perhaps reflecting the wear and tear of a year-long battle to oust the Navy from its Atlantic Fleet training ground.

Guards arrested one protester inside the target area Monday, temporarily disrupting ship-to-shore shelling. Five others were arrested on horseback outside the area.

Current exercises, which could run through July 2, are approximately 70 percent complete.

The Navy must abandon Vieques by May 2003 if Vieques residents vote to expel it in a referendum expected next year. If the Navy wins, it gets to use live munitions again.

Puerto Rican lawmaker Lourdes Ramos warned on Monday that the protests could jeopardize the referendum. But the San Juan Star Tuesday quoted Jeffrey Farrow, Clinton's adviser on Puerto Rico, as saying he did not see how the latest demonstrations could affect the accord.

Puerto Rican leaders said they would raise the Vieques issue at a Wednesday meeting with Clinton in Washington.