WASHINGTON -- Protesters who have shut down the Navy's live bombing range in Puerto Rico for the past year could be removed next week by federal marshals supported by Coast Guard vessels and Marines aboard Navy ships, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Federal officials have finalized a plan to remove scores of protesters who have been camped on the island of Vieques since last April, when two 500-pound bombs from a Marine F-18 jet went astray, killing a Puerto Rican security guard and wounding four others.
The officials said the two-phase plan would remove protesters near the gates of Camp Garcia, at the entrance to the bombing range, before taking those from the dozen or more camps on the range. The firing range is situated on the eastern third of the 22-mile-long island, which has 9,300 residents.
Two weeks ago, U.S. marshals were flying over the Gulf of Mexico when their mission to remove protesters was aborted and they turned back to a base in Louisiana. Puerto Rican leaders called a halt to the mission, said U.S. officials who requested anonymity.
Navy officials declined to comment yesterday. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig suspended training shortly after the accident and protesters occupied the range.
In January, President Clinton and Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello agreed to a resumption of bombing on the 59-year-old range -- but only with nonexplosive ordnance until 2003. A referendum on Vieques this year or next would determine whether the Navy would stay after that. Under the agreement, Vieques would receive $40 million once training begins with inert bombs and another $50 million if the referendum allows the Navy to stay and use live ordnance.
The Navy says the range is vital and must be reopened. It is the only live-fire range on the East Coast and has been used since 1941 for aircraft and ship bombardments, as well as beach assaults by Marines. Deep water, together with low-density ship and air traffic, make it a prime location for training, Pentagon officials say.
But many in Puerto Rico and Vieques have long complained about the noise and environmental damage to the island. Some say that the elevated cancer rate on Vieques is linked to the bombing.
A U.S. official said two Navy ships were to leave Norfolk, Va., today for North Carolina's Camp Lejeune, where they were to pick up Marines who are to take part in the removal of protesters. But the official said the ships would not leave as scheduled because news of the mission leaked yesterday.
"Every time there are rumors of arrests, more and more people come to the campsites," said Flavio Cumpiano, a lawyer for the Viequens. If Vieques protesters are arrested, he said, Puerto Ricans would demonstrate from San Juan to New York City. "There'll be indignation and protests, and they'll take to the streets."