VIEQUES, Puerto Rico U.S. Navy planes began dropping inert bombs Monday on the firing range here for the first time since October, as military police handcuffed and detained five women who entered Navy land.
Although the protests surrounding what is expected to be three weeks of war exercises have been muted since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, small bands of demonstrators have launched protests on the outlying Puerto Rican island since this weekend, erecting barricades and holding vigils.
Maria de Lourdes Santiago, vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), left, raises her handcuffed arms after being detained with four other women from the PIP by military police for trespassing on U.S. Navy land in Vieques, Puerto Rico Monday, April 1, 2002. Military exercises began Monday on Vieques where protests have continued since a civilian guard was killed by off-target bombs in 1999. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Outside the Navy's Camp Garcia on Monday, one pro-statehood demonstrator carrying a U.S. flag was showing his support of the Navy when a woman raced toward him and punched him in the face. Within minutes, a crowd opposing the Navy's presence surrounded and began beating him.
Police pulled the crowd off the man and took him away to the police station for his own protection, Police Col. Cesar Gracia said. He said the man was bleeding from a punch to the head.
After the clash, Father Nelson Lopez, a Catholic priest on Vieques who has been outspoken against the Navy's presence on the island, said the man should have taken his protest elsewhere.
Earlier on Monday morning, five women reportedly broke through the Navy fence line around 5 a.m. and were detained about four hours later. They were led by Independence Party Vice President Maria de Lourdes Santiago.
After their detention, the women sat cross-legged with their hands in plastic manacles, sometimes pumping their fists into the air and shouting "Vieques, si. Marina, no. Fuera la Marina!" (Navy get out!")
The detentions came as the Navy began exercises at 8 a.m. with ships and planes from the USS George Washington battle group, which includes destroyers, guided missile cruisers, an attack submarine and 35 war planes. Exercises were last held in September and October.
On Sunday night, a group of protesters from the Independence Party said they were gathering for a peaceful protest at Camp Guadalupe near the Navy's Camp Garcia when Navy security personnel fired pepper gas into the crowd. Activist and party leader Abdel Guadeloupe said officers also fired rubber bullets and one woman was hit in the buttocks.
Navy spokesman Lt. Corey Barker denied the claim, saying only pepper gas was fired and that demonstrators had thrown rocks at an all-terrain vehicle and put spikes in the road.
In the past, the Navy and protesters have made counterclaims about incursions into the camp and its inner seaside bombing range, which hundreds of protesters invaded periodically last year, often forcing the Navy to halt or postpone exercises.
But the protest movement has lost vigor and support since Sept. 11.
Only about two dozen cars and fewer than 100 activists turned out Sunday for a car cavalcade through civilian areas of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
The movement got the attention of the world when it led protesters to invade the Navy's bombing range after two 500-pound bombs fired off target from a Marine jet killed a Puerto Rican civilian guard working on the range in April 1999.
Activists occupied the range for a year, preventing exercises until they were forcibly removed by U.S. Marshals.
Current Gov. Sila Calderon, who was elected largely because of a promise to force the Navy to leave immediately, now shies away from outright criticism. She says she backs a deal, endorsed by President Bush, for the Navy to leave by May 2003.
Even that may be jeopardized by a post-Sept. 11 law allowing the Navy to use Vieques until it finds an alternative.
The Navy says there's no other one place where it can do what it does in Vieques where, simultaneously, planes drop bombs, ships lob shells at the shore and Marines practice amphibious landings.
The agreement that led to the ouster of the protesters cut back Navy exercises to 90 days a year, down from about 180, and limited ammunition to inert bombs.
In January, the Navy relocated exercises scheduled for Vieques to North Carolina's Camp Lejeune and Florida's Pinecastle range. Those exercises used live bombs, which the Navy said was essential before deployment in Afghanistan.
© 2002 The Associated Press