Second day of protest greets Vieques exercises
VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (CNN) -- A second day of protests greeted the resumption of Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques on Saturday, forcing authorities to suspend exercises briefly.
Navy Lt. Jeff Gordon, a public affairs officer for U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, said the number of protesters outside the range was about the same number as had demonstrated outside the facility's gates Friday.
Two groups of protesters attempted to infiltrate the security zone by boat. The Coast Guard seized one of them, said Gordon. "That boat's gone," he said.
A second boat got away, he said.
Despite the demonstrators and heavy cloud cover, which forced the delay of practice runs, U.S. warships fired inert shells onto the bombing range for about 90 minutes Saturday, he said.
They stopped occasionally as helicopters, infrared devices and other sensors determined whether civilians had entered the zone.
At least 127 demonstrators have been arrested since Friday and charged with trespassing on federal property, bringing the total arrested since last June to nearly 600. Fewer than 10 percent of those arrested are from Vieques, Gordon said. Most are from mainland Puerto Rico or mainland United States, he said.
'Disturbing evidence' of health problems for population
The range, used for target practice since 1941, has been a battleground of a different sort since an errant bomb killed a civilian security guard two years ago. Opponents of the exercises say the bombing threatens the environment and health of island residents.
Annabelle Rodriguez, justice secretary for the U.S. commonwealth, told CNN a recent study has shown "disturbing evidence" of health problems among the island's population of about 9,000.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is examining those results.
"There are serious concerns and serious findings that have come about recently regarding a number of studies which tend to indicate that there are health-related problems which are directly affected by the level of noise coming for the shelling of Vieques, from the ship-to-shore shelling," Rodriguez said.
But Gordon said other researchers are unable to support claims that noise from the exercises hurts islanders' health.
"We're absolutely convinced there is no connection whatsoever between Navy operations on Vieques and the health of island residents," he said.
Security zone to remain around exercises
Navy planes dropped dummy bombs that contained no explosives during Friday's exercises, which included ships from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise battle group and aircraft from the Roosevelt Roads naval base on Puerto Rico.
Gordon said the base is the "crown jewel" of Navy training facilities in the Atlantic, allowing ships offshore to practice shelling, aircraft to rehearse raids on the beach and Marines to practice amphibious landings. He said several bases on the U.S. mainland, including Oklahoma's Fort Sill and Florida's Eglin Air Force Base have exercises much closer to populated areas, and "and the population is much greater than on Vieques."
Those arrested Friday included eight protesters who boated to a tiny island just offshore, forcing the Navy to stop its bombing minutes after it started, and other who cut the fence around the base and slipped into the facility.
In addition, military police detained five protesters inside the training ground's target zone overnight and three more were found after daybreak in what's called the live-impact area, delaying the start of Saturday's maneuvers, spokesman Lt. Corey Barker told The Associated Press.
The Navy released pictures Saturday it said were taken from inside the fence along the perimeter of the bombing range at Camp Garcia during Friday's demonstrations.
One of the photographs shows a sailor daubing a white cloth stained red on the forehead of another sailor. The Navy said the sailor had been injured by a bottle thrown by one of the protesters. He received stitches but did not require hospitalization, Gordon said
Nine sailors have been hospitalized since June, 2000, from similar attacks, he said.
Another photo showed protesters tearing down Navy fencing and trespassing on federal property at the Navy's training facility, the Navy said.
Puerto Rico had sought a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to block the drills, but U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler rejected the arguments.
The Coast Guard said a security zone around the training area would remain in effect until exercises end sometime next week. A Coast Guard statement warned that violators could be charged with a felony and be subject to a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Most of those arrested not live on the island, but are members of Puerto Rico's pro-independence party, Gordon said.
Federal authorities arrested hundreds of other demonstrators last year as they sought to block use of the bombing range.
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