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Tensions Rise Over Bomb Range

December 3, 1999

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) _ On a U.S. Navy bombing range occupied by Puerto Rican protesters in nine makeshift camps, Carlos Zenon and his three boys live on its most remote and dangerous summit, shattered by explosives and accessible by a trail littered with weaponry.

Unlike some protesters on Vieques island who seem resigned to eventual arrest, Zenon and a handful of others here say U.S. authorities will have to catch them first. On Thursday _ amid fevered speculation that President Clinton was about to decide whether the Navy could renew exercises here _ they set up another camp, deep in the bush, to make it harder.

``I’m not just waiting for them to come and get me,″ said Zenon, 63.

All around, the fins of unexploded bombs as tall as a man stuck out of the grass like tombstones. Shiny blue capsules the size of golf balls _ the anti-personnel explosives inside cluster bombs _ glittered in the sun. Rockets, grenades and shells the size of footballs lay beside the path.

Zenon and fellow demonstrators named their camp Mount David _ after David Sanes Rodriguez, a civilian security guard whose death in an April bombing accident ignited the protests and led to the suspension of Navy exercises on Vieques, which is home to 9,000 civilians.

With the USS Eisenhower carrier battle group scheduled for training in Puerto Rican waters, the 50-odd protesters were preparing for federal agents to sweep in and arrest them in a dramatic conclusion to the seven-month vigil.

Gov. Pedro Rossello _ a Clinton ally who wants to make this Spanish-speaking U.S. territory the 51st U.S. state _ supports demands by Puerto Rican nationalists that the bombings end and the Navy leave.

In Washington, Clinton administration officials said Thursday that Puerto Rico had won at least a temporary victory. The USS Eisenhower and its battle group will complete training off the southeastern U.S. coast instead of using Vieques, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The unconfirmed decision, first reported Thursday by CBS News, sparked a celebration among the protesters.

``If this is true, then it’s a triumph of the people,″ said Ismael Guadelupe, a local fisherman who is among the protest leaders. ``But the triumph will be complete when they turn over all the lands, clean up the contamination and compensate the people of Vieques for all their years of suffering.″

Local media have widely reported an imminent deal in which live bombings will cease and dummy bombings would be conducted only 90 days a year, with the Navy to vacate the island entirely in three years.

The Pentagon has asked Clinton for permission to continue live bombings for five more years, claiming Vieques _ the training ground for every major conflict since World War II, including the Persian Gulf War and Kosovo _ is essential to national security.

The dispute has strained relations with the United States and stirred up anti-U.S. sentiment in Puerto Rico, which the United States won as booty in the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Zenon, head of the Vieques Fishermen’s Association, and his three sons have pitched their tents next to the burnt shell of an army tank, on a site overlooking a small valley that is the main target for Navy bombers and ships. Around twisted remains of troop carriers and guns, the ground is dotted with water-filled craters _ breeding grounds for mosquitoes that have laid siege to Zenon’s camp.

As a child, Zenon and his mother watched as their house was bulldozed to make way for a Navy weapons storage site on the western side of Vieques. As a teen, he organized groups of boys to fight sailors ``who came into the town without a pass, or were drunk, or harassed the girls.″

He was arrested twice for blocking Navy ships by tangling their propellers in chains strung from buoys. He spent two months in jail in 1980.

Since the protests began in April, Zenon’s family of five has been living on his U.S. Social Security checks. His wife, Aleida, prepares food shipments for the camp and rounds up supplies. His three sons, ages 19, 20 and 22, take turns at the camp and study in mainland Puerto Rico on their days off.

``It’s difficult ... but this is a family duty,″ said son Yabureibo. ``All my life I’ve been learning how to fight the Navy.″

Zenon worries that his camp’s militancy has earned a bad reputation among the other activists. Recently, the archbishop of San Juan called organizers in Vieques because he had heard that Monte David protesters had weapons and planned to fight back when arrests begin.

``No, no, we aren’t going to fight, and we’re not hiding weapons,″ he said. ``We do have a lot of bombs,″ he joked, waving a hand at the explosives scattered everywhere. ``But none of them are ours.″

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