The Washington Post
Thursday, May 4, 2000; Page A03

Navy Protest Intensifies

                  Officials Urge Clinton to Defuse Puerto Rican Showdown

                  By Sylvia Moreno
                  Washington Post Staff Writer

                  VIEQUES, Puerto Rico, May 3A coalition of clergy, members of
                  Congress and New York officials of Puerto Rican descent asked President
                  Clinton yesterday to call off the threatened arrests of local residents who
                  took over a naval bombing range after an errant missile killed a civilian last
                  year, predicting civil unrest if a federal raid occurs.

                  They want the administration to negotiate a settlement with the dozens of
                  protesters. "To arrest the people would be a terrible mistake, and we
                  appeal to the president to stop this nonsense. We are peaceful
                  demonstrators," said Bishop Alvaro Corrado del Rio of the Diocese of
                  Caguas.

                  "Arrests are only going to open a wider spectrum of civil disobedience in
                  Vieques and Puerto Rico," he said. "This is unjust and an abuse of the
                  people of Vieques."

                  The National Council of Churches sent a letter to the Clinton administration
                  urging it to back off from its threat of U.S. police action against the
                  protesters and to immediately cease using the island for military target
                  practice.

                  But a senior Pentagon official said today that "the decision-making process
                  [on the raid] is complete but the plan allows a lot of flexibility in execution.
                  The final call on when to go in will be made on the law enforcement side."

                  And government sources in Washington said the decision on when to move
                  the protesters will be made by the FBI SWAT team commander on the
                  scene in coordination with the bureau's Strategic Information Operations
                  Command in Washington.

                  Federal sources have said the raid could happen late this week.

                  Supporters of the protesters also warned of the potential backlash a
                  federal raid could have for first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is
                  running for the Senate in New York, where people of Puerto Rican
                  descent make up 6 percent of the electorate.

                  "A small, inhabited island should not be used for target practice," the first
                  lady said in a statement. "I urge the Pentagon to negotiate a peaceful
                  resolution to this situation." "This will have a lot of political implications,"
                  said Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.).

                  The president "needs to read my words. I don't need to threaten the
                  president," she said. "But aren't we being hypocrites by exporting
                  democracy to Bosnia and Croatia while we don't have democracy in
                  Vieques?"

                  Once just a ragtag group of protesters little known outside this island town,
                  the dissidents, and their cause, drew supporters from as far away as
                  Chicago and New York to their turf--a dozen illegal seaside camps that
                  are reachable only by boat. Last week, other Puerto Ricans consecrated
                  the First Ecumenical Church of Puerto Rico. On the altar of the open-air
                  wooden structure is a poster that reads, "No More Bombing Vieques" in
                  English and Spanish.

                  "The people of Vieques have been extra patient and generous with the
                  Navy for 60 years," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who joined the
                  protesters Tuesday. "Their petition is for peace, and it's a nonnegotiable
                  one."

                  Naval bombing and training exercises came to a halt here a year ago
                  following the death of civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez. The
                  incident sparked the smoldering discontent of local residents still resentful
                  of the federal expropriation in 1941 of the eastern and western ends of the
                  island to build a bombing range and an ammunition depot. The island's
                  9,300 residents live between the installations.

                  Within weeks of the accident, protest camps of multi-colored tents sprang
                  up on the bombing range, forcing the Navy to cancel training maneuvers. In
                  an attempt to appease protesters, Clinton and the administration of Gov.
                  Pedro Rossello agreed to a deal in January that will give Vieques $40
                  million in exchange for allowing the Navy to conduct exercises with mock
                  bombs that contain no explosives. In addition, the residents of Vieques will
                  also vote on a referendum sometime between this August and February
                  2002 on whether the Navy may resume using live ammunition. If voters say
                  yes, Vieques will receive an additional $50 million. If they defeat the
                  proposal, the Navy must clean up its practice range--littered with rusting
                  targets and live bombs--and stop all training by May 1, 2003.

                  That agreement only angered the protesters, who increased their numbers
                  and the illegal beach encampments, leading to the federal ultimatum that
                  they abandon the range.

                  Staff writers Roberto Suro and David A. Vise in Washington contributed
                  to this report.