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Violence Mars US Navy Withdrawal from Vieques Island - 2003-05-01

Violence has marred Thursday's scheduled withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from a controversial bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

Shouting anti-Navy slogans, hundreds of protesters stormed the bombing range and burned military vehicles early Thursday. The unrest came hours after the deadline passed for the end of the Navy's presence on Vieques, a tiny island to the east of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico's Governor Sila Calderon was on hand for ceremonies marking the transfer of the bombing range to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which plans to convert the 6,000 hectare facility into a wildlife refuge. The governor decried the protesters' actions, accusing them of breaking the law and violating the spirit of what has been a hard-fought campaign to end the military's presence on Vieques.

The Navy first acquired the land in 1940, and from World War II to the Gulf War, used the facility to train pilots for bombing missions.

But long-simmering local anger and resentment reached a boiling point in 1999, when off-target bombs killed a civilian security guard on the range. The Navy subsequently began using inert munitions for training purposes, but insisted the facility be preserved in the interest of national security.

Two years ago, the Bush Administration pledged to cease operations on the island by May of this year. The last training exercises were held in February.

Despite the Navy's withdrawal from Vieques, many Puerto Ricans say they are far from satisfied. They say a massive clean-up effort will be required to remove toxins and other materials that they contend are destroying the island's ecology and pose a health threat to its residents.

The Navy has long disputed such claims.