Thousands march against U.S. Navy exercises in Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Chanting ''No to the Navy!'' thousands of Puerto Ricans rallied in San Juan on Sunday to protest new U.S. military exercises on the outlying island of Vieques.

Jets from the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier began dropping dummy bombs on Vieques on Thursday, and ships from its accompanying battle group will begin shelling the island later this month.

About 5,000 protesters marched in 90-degree heat to a rally at the gates of Fort Buchanan, an army base in suburban San Juan. There, organizers urged activists to redouble their yearlong effort to force out the Navy. Police said the protest was peaceful.

Activists claim the exercises endanger Vieques' 9,400 residents and have stunted economic development. But the Navy called the rally ''part of a multi-million-dollar smear campaign'' directed by groups who want independence for Puerto Rico.

''Most of these people have a political affiliation, and their cause has nothing to do with Vieques,'' said Navy spokesman Jeff Gordon.

Some of the protesters marched to the rally from the federal prison in San Juan, where authorities are holding 19 activists - including two local lawmakers - on charges of trying to enter the bombing range to halt exercises.

Attendance at the rally - organized hastily after the Navy announced the new exercises last week - fell far short of the 80,000 who marched at a similar event in February.

Resentment over the Navy's presence in Vieques boiled over in April 1999 after a U.S. Marine Corps jet dropped two bombs off target, killing a civilian security guard working on the Navy bombing range. A study by the Puerto Rican government revealed other close calls and concluded the bombing has caused environmental damage - a charge the Navy denies.

Protesters built camps on the range, halting exercises for one year until U.S. Marshals cleared them out by force on May 4. Since then, more than 450 people have been arrested trying to re-enter the training ground.

President Clinton has promised to order the Navy out by May 2003 if Vieques residents vote in a referendum to expel them. Until the vote, expected next year, maneuvers are to continue with non-explosive bombs and shells.

But activists fear a new U.S. president may renege on Clinton's deal if a military emergency arises. They want the Navy to leave immediately.

On Sunday the Harry Truman battle group was on the high seas northeast of Puerto Rico, Gordon said. Its airplanes were dropping 25-pound metal bombs on Vieques.

The Navy and the Puerto Rican government have set up equipment to monitor the noise of guns when ship-to-shore shelling begins later this month, Gordon said.


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