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Friday, 5 May, 2000, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Vieques protesters: 'We'll be back'
candlelit protest
A candlelit protest at San Juan's El Morro fortress
Puerto Rican protesters evicted on Thursday from a US navy bombing range on the island of Vieques have pledged to return.

You can bet that we're going back

Rega Miro, protester

"Obviously the fight isn't over," said one of the leaders of the protest, 60-year-old Ruben Berrios, who returned home to a hero's welcome in the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan.

"When and how we will return is something we can't say right now - but we will return."

Other protesters echoed Mr Berrios' determination to go back and continue the action to force the navy off the island.

Vigil

The demonstrators invaded the range shortly after stray bombs killed a civilian security guard in April 1999.

Mr Berrios was the only one who never left the range.

He was evicted along with 140 other protesters by US federal agents who launched a pre-dawn raid to enable the navy to resume bombing exercises on the island.

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"You can bet that we're going back," said protester, Rega Miro, aged 26.

"Because of what we've done, every day the movement will grow stronger."

In San Juan, hundreds of people swarmed to the Old Town's historic El Morro fortress for a rally and candlelight vigil.

"When they go back in (to the range), I'm going with them," declared 56-year-old Ismeralda Vades.

Security zone

Local people say the military has damaged the Vieques environment, ruined its economy and caused an unusually high cancer rate on the island.

Mr Berrios
Mr Berrios: never left the range
The navy, for its part, insists the base is vital to national security as it is the only place it can run simultaneous air, sea and land exercises using live ammunition.

A raid to clear the base had been expected since 1 May, when three US warships, reportedly carrying 1,000 Marines, arrived in the Vieques area.

The US Coast Guard has now established a security zone in the waters around the base, and the perimeter fence has been strengthened.

Mr Berrios ran his seafront tent camp with strict discipline, allowing no alcohol and ensuring the beach was combed daily.

In December, he resigned the local senate seat he had held for 16 years, saying he did not want to deprive his party of its sole seat because he wanted to remain on the beach and concentrate on the fight to eject the navy.

A law professor educated at Oxford and Yale, Mr Berrios took part in a similar civil disobedience campaign on Vieques' sister island of Culebra, and was jailed briefly for his actions there in 1973.

The protest helped prompt the navy to leave Culebra in 1975.

Despite his popularity, Mr Berrios and his party generally receive only around 5% of the vote at most - a reflection of Puerto Ricans' hesitation to sever their ties to the United States.

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See also:

04 May 00 | Americas
Arrests at US naval base
02 May 00 | Americas
Tension rises in Puerto Rico
22 Feb 00 | Americas
Island protest against war games
20 Oct 99 | Americas
Puerto Rico stands up to US
03 Aug 99 | Americas
US navy takes blame for killing
12 Nov 98 | Crossing continents
Feature: Muddying the waters
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