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Party Leader Detained in Vieques

May 10, 2000

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Puerto Rico’s independence party leader slipped past U.S. Marines guarding the Navy’s Vieques training ground Wednesday and was detained hours before a Navy destroyer shelled the range using non-explosive ordnance.

Ruben Berrios and activist Jorge Fernandez Porto entered the island bombing range before dawn and were detained at 9 a.m. by Marines.

``I don’t know if I’m under arrest,″ Berrios shouted from inside the main gate before U.S. marshals took the pair away.

The Marshals Service had no immediate comment. Marines patrol the range perimeter to stop anyone from entering, and how Berrios got in wasn’t immediately known.

At 11 a.m., the USS Stump fired non-explosive rounds in the first ship-to-shore shelling at the Atlantic fleet range in more than a year. The shelling, which lasted roughly two hours, complied with a presidential order allowing the Navy to resume limited operations on Vieques using non-explosive ordnance, said Navy spokesman Bob Nelson. Puerto Rico’s government was notified at least 15 days ago of the event.

``Today’s training was completed safely, professionally and without incident,″ Nelson said.

Two Navy A-4 Skyhawks dropped 12 ``dummy″ bombs at the ground Monday, fulfilling a Navy pledge to resume operations despite protesters’ claims that some colleagues were still on the range.

Berrios, 60, had camped on the range for nearly a year, helping lead protests against Navy training before he and 223 others were removed in a federal operation that began May 11.

The detainees were released without charges, but anyone entering now faces tough penalties: up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine under a new order issued by President Clinton.

Berrios ``is violating the imperialist law in order to comply with the law of his fatherland,″ said Independence Party Senator Manuel Rodriguez Orellana.

Protesters occupied the range in April 1999 after a civilian security guard was killed by stray bombs. They say decades of bombing have harmed their health and the environment and stunted tourism.

The Navy disputes those arguments and says Vieques is the only place where the Atlantic Fleet can hold simultaneous air, land and sea training. Clinton and Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello agreed in January to let the Navy resume limited training with inert ordnance and, in exchange, let Vieques residents vote _ probably next year _ on whether the Navy should leave by 2003.

In San Juan, a U.S. magistrate issued arrest warrants for two activists who, protesters claim, are inside the range. Brothers Casimar and Pedro Zenon are accused of assault for allegedly throwing rocks at Navy and contract personnel at the range on March 18. One civilian was hit.

Vieques fishermen, meanwhile, said they would try Saturday to run a 3-mile-wide no-entry zone around the range that they say has robbed them of their fishing grounds. The Coast Guard is enforcing the zone.

Update hourly