VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) _ They came just before first light: Puerto Rican riot police in vans, military Humvees, unmarked white vans carrying U.S. marshals _ a force dispatched by the world's premier power to liberate the U.S. Navy's prize Atlantic bombing range.

Their target: Protesters who had camped on federal property outside Camp Garcia for months, and who on this starry Caribbean night recited poetry and sang. They would be the first among 216 people removed Thursday from the Navy range on Vieques.

Almost half the group of about 60 protesters crossed into civilian territory on the other side of a two-lane road.

U.S. marshals in riot gear assembled inside the camp, looking at the protesters through a chain-link fence. Puerto Rican police lined up on the other side of the protesters, along the civilian road.

Light glinted off the marshals' face shields. Some protesters, mistaking the shields for gas masks, produced plastic bags with vinegar-soaked rags to protect against tear gas.

Three marshals and a woman in an FBI vest came out through the fence and addressed the remaining protesters. ``You must leave the property immediately!'' one marshal said through a blue megaphone. ``If you do not leave promptly, we will have to remove you.''

No one in the group of protesters moved. It could have gone either way: violence or passive arrest.

``The police of Puerto Rico helped us at the Camp Garcia gate and we salute them ... because I know Puerto Rico has a division of opinion on this,'' Deputy FBI Assistant Jim Weber, who commanded the operation, later recounted. ``Their presence contributed immensely to avoiding violence at the main gate.''

Robert Rabin, an Everett, Massachusetts native who has become a vocal local activist, spoke briefly and quietly with the marshals, then addressed the group.

``This is a struggle for peace,'' he said. ``Let's do this in a peaceful manner.''

Rabin then surrendered to the marshals and was taken inside the camp's fence to an explosion of cheers.

The rest followed in small groups, each surrender accompanied by wild cheering: Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat from New York; 82-year-old Vieques resident Luisa Guadalupe, leaning on a friend; Jose Aponte, the mayor of the town of Carolina; and Tito Auger, a local rock star. About 30 in all.

Some who watched began to cry.

``Oh, how much longer will we have to fight?'' wailed Margarita Santos, 40.