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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 May, 2003, 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK
Island marks US Navy's exit
Cheers as boat leaves for land once belonging to US Navy
Vieques islanders celebrate the Navy's departure

People on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques are celebrating the departure of the US Navy which used the territory for war games for the past 60 years.

The Navy handed over a bombing range on the eastern end of Vieques to the US Interior Department, which will turn the land into a wildlife refuge.

A minute before the official midnight deadline, hundreds of protesters stormed into the bombing range, stealing Navy vehicles and smashing them up.

Amid the partying - set to last until the weekend - some campaigners are calling for further protests to reclaim the land totally from the US federal authorities.

"New era"

To thunderous applause, Governor Sila Calderon said the Navy withdrawal marked "the beginning of a new era in peace and prosperity for Vieques.

"It is a moment of great joy for we have achieved our dream," she added.

Islanders had grown increasingly resentful of the Navy's use of Vieques - a frustration which erupted in 1999 when a civilian security guard was killed by a stray bomb.

This is no victory. We still don't have the land
Severina Guadalupe

Hours before Wednesday night's deadline, dozens of protesters entered the seaside range by boats saying they wanted to "send a message... that these lands belong to the people of Vieques".

They ignored warnings that the range was dangerous and demonstrators shouted "Fuera la Marina!" "Out with the Navy!"

Just before the deadline, several protesters broke down a fenced side-door at the entrance of the range, allowing hundreds to pour through waving the Vieques and Puerto Rican flags.

Later, a number of Navy vehicles were taken and driven into the gate - the lights and windows smashed with sledgehammers.

Tensions

The Navy bought two-thirds of Vieques from local landowners in the 1940s and has used the range to train sailors for conflicts since 1947.

Families living there at the time were forced to leave - sparking the beginning of a simmering resentment among the island's 8,000 residents.

Vieques Governor Sila Calderon
"New era of peace and prosperity" says Governor Sila Calderon

Decades later the death of guard David Sanes brought tensions to a head.

Protesters stormed the range and occupied it for a year before they were forcibly removed.

The countdown to departure began in 2001 when the Bush administration pledged to end military activity on the island.

After an extensive clean-up, the US Fish and Wildlife Service will turn the 6,000-hectare (15,000 acre) site into the biggest wildlife refuge in Puerto Rico.

But not everyone is happy at this prospect.

Economic impact

"These lands are ours," Ismael Guadalupe told the Associated Press.

"We don't recognise the right of the Fish and Wildlife Service to administer the land," he said.

US sailors land on Vieques during a training exercise
The Navy long argued that Vieques played a vital role in training

"What's to celebrate? This is no victory," said Severina Guadalupe, as she described to AP how her family was given 24 hours to leave when the Navy moved in.

"We still don't have the land."

The closure of the Vieques bombing range is also likely to have an economic impact.

The Navy injected an estimated $300m a year into the Puerto Rican economy and its naval station in east Puerto Rico was one of the largest employers.

This month, the Navy announced it was laying off or relocating nearly half its 6,300 employees, AP reported.

Puerto Rico is a self-governing commonwealth in association with the United States.




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