For the first time this year, the U.S. Navy has held bombing exercises on the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques. So far the operation is provoking less of an outcry from local residents than similar exercises generated last year.
Early Monday, ships and planes from the USS George Washington battle group began shelling and bombing the 375 hectare firing range on the eastern half of the island.
Navy spokeswoman Lieutenant Commander Katherine Goode says, so far, protests have not impeded operations. "We did have five trespassers this morning that were detained by naval personnel and turned over to U.S. marshals," she said. "So far, it's been quiet, but this was just the first day. We hope that it stays quiet."
The protesters belong to Puerto Rico's pro-independence party, which wants the Navy to leave Vieques entirely. But observers say the level of anger directed at the Navy has abated in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Lieutenant Commander Goode says the training exercises will run for three weeks, and that the first day has gone well. "We are doing air-to-ground bombing of the range today, using inert ordinance, and so far everything is going off without a hitch and we are able to train our sailors," she said.
Polls have long shown a vast majority of Puerto Ricans oppose the periodic bombing of Vieques. Protests grew fierce after an accident in 1999 in which bombs landed off-target and killed a civilian guard who worked on the range. The Navy has used inert bombs, which do not explode, since then. President Bush has said bombing exercises will cease altogether on Vieques by next year.