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Thursday, 2 August, 2001, 23:32 GMT 00:32 UK
US Navy resumes Vieques war games
Protesters have infiltrated the base's firing range
The US Navy has begun a new round of exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques despite protests from local residents who want the bombing practice stopped.

Plumes of smoke were seen rising from warships as they shelled the island's firing range.

The US Government is acting like the dictatorships they criticise so much

Robert Rabin
Earlier, a group of seven protesters reportedly broke into the range in an attempt to disrupt the exercises.

The war games - involving the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and its battle group of ships, along with some 23,000 troops - will last for 10 days, Navy spokesman Lieutenant Bill Speaks said.

The exercises come a day after the US Congress voted to allow the Navy to continue its bombing practice and less than a week after local residents voted overwhelmingly in a non-binding referendum for their immediate end.

Robert Kennedy Jr being released from prison
After his release Kennedy headed straight to Vieques
The Navy's opponents say the bombing on the range, which occupies one-tenth of Vieques, has damaged the environment and the health of local people.

"The US Government is acting like the dictatorships they criticise so much," Robert Rabin, spokesman of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, said.

"The Navy began bombing today despite the position of the Puerto Rican governor and Vieques mayor and the will of the Vieques people."

The exercise is scheduled to include aerial bombing and practice by 1,000 marines who will land from helicopters.

Inert ammunition

Vieques Commissioner Juan Fernandez described the exercises as "an all-out war scenario" involving the "most complete and dangerous manoeuvres".

Since a civilian guard was accidentally killed in 1999, however, the Navy has been restricted to inert ammunition.

Officials argue that Vieques is a vital part of training for troops.

"If something were to happen in the Persian Gulf, this is the final step in training that prepares the troops to carry out an effective combat campaign," another Navy spokesman. Bob Nelson, said.

US President George Bush has said the Navy needs to continue using the range until 2003 whilst looking for an alternative site.

Lawyer returns

In June about 60 protesters were arrested by the US authorities for trespassing after illegally entering the range.

Environmental lawyer Robert F Kennedy Jr, who served 30 days in prison for trespassing on federal land in an intrusion that stopped Navy exercises for hours in April, was freed on Wednesday.

He told a rally to welcome him home to New York that it has been his duty to stand up for the people of Vieques.

"It's a decision that I never thought twice about," he said. "It has been one of the best things that's ever happened to me."

Mr Kennedy encouraged protesters to do what they could to stop the bombing and exercises.

The US Navy has used Vieques for 60 years, saying it is the only place it can train for amphibious landings.

About 9,000 people live on Vieques, with another four million on neighbouring Puerto Rico.

See also:

29 Jul 01 | Americas
Island backs end to US exercises
14 Jun 01 | Americas
US to withdraw from Vieques
04 Feb 01 | Americas
Cancer surge on bomb range island
03 Jan 01 | Americas
Tough-talking governor sworn in
04 May 00 | Americas
Arrests at US naval base
20 Oct 99 | Americas
Puerto Rico stands up to US
03 Aug 99 | Americas
US navy takes blame for killing
13 Nov 98 | Crossing Continents
The Puerto Rican paradox
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