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Thursday, September 16, 1999 Published at 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK

World: Americas

Puerto Ricans in beach battle with US

The island of Vieques is normally used for bombing target practice

Peter Greste reports from a Puerto Rican island under fire from the US military

The US Navy has come under close scrutiny over its use of the island of Vieques in the Caribbean to train its troops with live ammunition.

While President Clinton and the US Defense Secretary William Cohen are reviewing a report by a special commission which investigated the US Navy's actions, some Puerto Ricans have taken the matter into their own hands.

[ image: Thousands of decaying bombs, mortars and bullets litter the site]
Thousands of decaying bombs, mortars and bullets litter the site
The White House is to decide whether the Navy should continue to use Vieques in the face of widespread opposition from the islanders who say they have suffered enough.

Vieques is part of Puerto Rico, a US territory that has no voting members of Congress.

The defense secretary ordered the inquiry after an accident earlier this year in which a navy pilot missed his target by almost two miles, killing a locally employed security guard David Sanes Rodriguez, and injuring four other base employees.

Occupation for independence

But according to protesters who have established several illegal camps on the bombing range, that accident was simply the latest in a long list of abuses that have continued almost since the Navy occupied the island in the 1950s.

[ image: Independence leader Ruben Berrios says he will stay at his camp until he's dragged off or the navy leave.]
Independence leader Ruben Berrios says he will stay at his camp until he's dragged off or the navy leave.
"The people of Puerto Rico who live in Vieques live in constant fear for their lives with very high rates of cancer," said protest organiser Ruben Berrios.

"This whole side of the island is an ecological abomination and it does not look good for the most powerful nation in the world to deny the human rights of a civil population."

Mr Berrios leads the Puerto Rican Independence Party, and he has been camped on the Navy's land for the past four months - ever since Mr Sanes died.

He is part of a wide coalition of Puerto Rican politicians, church groups and civil organisations who are all demanding that Navy abandon Vieques.

"If (the US Government) decides in favour of the Navy, it will be an act of tyranny which will be repudiated by the whole of the Puerto Rican people, and will damage the reputation of the United States around the world," he said.

According to Mr Berrios and his supporters, the Navy has turned their island paradise quite literally into a battle ground.

[ image:  ]
From the sea, the protest camp at Salt Bay beach is a postcard Caribbean paradise. Palm trees and exotic plants lean over dazzling white sand which slips into a crystal blue sea.

But just behind the beach-front, tanks, artillery and aircraft lie rusting across the dunes, shredded by thousands of bullets and rockets. Empty shell-casings litter the ground, along side dummy bombs and mortars.

The protesters commissioned their own scientists to test the soil, and they found dangerously high levels of toxic metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium.

The Navy flatly contradicts that, insisting its test prove the levels are well within acceptable limits.

[ image: Edwin Milendez, 20, has cancer - doctors blame chemicals from the bombing range]
Edwin Milendez, 20, has cancer - doctors blame chemicals from the bombing range
"Why then, is the cancer rate on Vieques approaching a level 50% higher than the rest of Puerto Rico?" asks retired epidemiologist Dr Rafael Rivera Castano.

"No one has done any studies to prove a link between the bombing and cancers here," he conceded.

"But if that is not behind it all, we will have an extremely tough time finding anything else.

"The Navy's activities are the only unusual environmental factor we can think of that might cause the problems here."

Twenty-year-old design student Edwin Milendez agrees. Five years ago, he was a promising long-distance runner, aiming for a college scholarship.

But his career abruptly ended when doctors diagnosed him with testicular cancer - a highly unusual disease in someone so young.

He lives in a house on a hill with a commanding view of the Navy base's front gate, downwind of the bombing range.

"As soon as my doctors heard [where I live] they were convinced the chemicals that blow in from the range when they have exercises were responsible for my cancer," he said.

Vital for defence

But according to Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Bob Garcia, the impact on the locals is exaggerated. He argues that Vieques is vital to US defence.

[ image: Navy spokesman Lt Cdr Bob Garcia says the island is essential to the navy's training]
Navy spokesman Lt Cdr Bob Garcia says the island is essential to the navy's training
"This is critical to the safety of the men and women that we send overseas," he said, "The average age of a crewman on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier is 19 and a half years old, and if we are expecting those young men and women to go into harms way, we really owe them training in a realistic environment so they can be ready for whatever threats that they face."

According to the Navy, Vieques is unique. No where else within the United States is there any plot of land that allows battle ships to launch attacks from the sea, marines to stage amphibious landings and, jets to bomb from the air all at once.

"This keeps people from getting hurt unnecessarily," he said.

"Without the experience of live firing exercises, our troops would not be able to do their jobs as well on real battle fields, and that means more casualties, more of our people would become prisoners, and we would be faced with longer conflicts."

Its still not clear what the inquiry's conclusions are although reports leaked to US newspapers say it has recommended that the Navy phase out its operations on Vieques over the next five years.

That will not be enough to satisfy the Puerto Ricans.

"We do not want them here another five minutes" said one campaigner.

"If it is anything less than immediate withdrawal, we will continue to fight."

[ image: One of the targets on Vieques' beaches]
One of the targets on Vieques' beaches

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