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U.S. military detains protesters against bombing of Vieques

Protesters faced off with the U.S. military today at a Navy bombing range on Puerto Rico's Vieques Island. By midday, U.S. security forces had detained at least 13 people.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (CNN) -- Protesters faced off with the U.S. military on Friday at a Navy bombing range on Puerto Rico's Vieques Island.

By midday, U.S. security forces had detained at least 13 people, including eight protesters who boated to a tiny island just offshore, forcing the Navy to stop its bombing minutes after it started.

The bombing, using "inert" bombs the Navy said would not explode, resumed after the eight were arrested. At least five more people were detained overnight when they were found on the practice range grounds.

The range, used for target practice since 1941, has been a battleground of a different sort since a civilian security guard was killed two years ago by an errant bomb.

Puerto Rico had sought a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to block the drills, but U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler rejected the arguments.

After the ruling, the Navy said it would again conduct training exercises at Vieques, and hundreds of protesters converged on San Juan, Puerto Rico, to signal their displeasure.

By Friday afternoon, dozens of protesters beat drums, sang and chanted as they marched in front of the gates. A line of security guards stood between them and the bombing range on the eastern end of Vieques Island.

Opponents confident of eventual win

Earlier on Friday, Navy A-4 bombers from the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico started bombing but stopped minutes later when the protesters were spotted on the island. Security forces were dispatched to remove them.

Two destroyers from the carrier's battle group launched ship-to-shore bombs after the protesters were taken into custody and removed to safety.

Opponents of the Navy's use of the island said they were not discouraged by the ruling that allowed the resumption of the bombing.

"We have a strong case, a difficult case, but a strong case. ... I'm confident we're going to prevail on the merits," said Eugene Gulland, an attorney representing the Puerto Rican government. He said Puerto Rico hopes to resolve the matter through talks with the Bush administration.

Kessler rejected arguments from attorneys for Puerto Rico that the coming exercise would inflict irreparable harm on people living near the range. The Department of Health and Human Services is studying whether the noise may be linked to some health problems in residents of Vieques.

Justice Department attorneys had argued the United States has the right to continue the drills while broader questions over noise are resolved.

Range used for 60 years

Last year, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested as they sought to block use of the bombing range, protesting the accidental bombing death of a civilian there. In April 1999, a Marine Corps jet inadvertently dropped two bombs off target, killing a civilian guard working on the bombing range.

The Pentagon says it needs the range for combat training for Navy and Marine pilots.

"We continue to say that the training down there is very, very important. Realistic training is one of the reasons that the United States military is as effective as it is around the world," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley. "And Vieques is a superb training range, the best in the entire Atlantic for the uses that the Navy and Marine Corps need to put it toward."

He added that the training there "is absolutely essential to the value and the realism and the preparedness of our military forces as they prepare to deploy forward."

CNN Producers Allison Flexner and Paul Courson and Correspondent John Zarrella contributed to this report.
 
 

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