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US Navy Resumes Controversial Training Exercises Off Vieques - 2003-01-15


The U.S. Navy has resumed training exercises off the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, one day after local protesters squared off with military personnel along the perimeter of the controversial firing range.

The ongoing training exercises, involving warships and Navy aircraft, are the last such maneuvers before the military's planned withdrawal from the firing range in May.

But Puerto Rican demonstrators continue to denounce the Navy's use of the facility, which covers one-third of the tiny island of Vieques. Tuesday, protesters hurled rocks at military personnel patrolling the firing range, who responded by lobbing canisters of tear gas. No one was seriously wounded in the skirmish.

In 2001, after years of unrest surrounding Vieques, the Bush administration announced that Navy ships and warplanes would begin using empty shells for training exercises. Additionally, the administration pledged to cease operations entirely by May 2003, at which point the facility would be turned over to the Department of the Interior and be converted into a wildlife refuge.

Puerto Ricans demonstrators 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.

Vieques has been used for shelling and bombing exercises since the 1940s. Until 2001, the Navy insisted that the firing range was indispensable for training purposes and that naval preparedness would be harmed if the facility were closed.

The maneuvers have never been popular among Puerto Ricans. But the issue reached a boiling point in 1999 when an off-target bomb killed a civilian security guard on the firing range.

The Navy says, once it abandons Vieques, it will shift training exercises to Florida and elsewhere in the United States.