VIEQUES, Puerto Rico – Federal authorities arrested eight anti-U.S. Navy protesters and sprayed another group with tear gas on Vieques island Sunday, hours before the military was to resume bombing exercises that had been paused for a religious occasion.
The exercises are to resume Monday morning and are expected to last several more days, Navy Lt. Jeff Gordon said. The Navy had avoided exercises Sunday as the largely Catholic U.S. territory observed the ceremony putting Carlos Manuel Rodriguez on the path to sainthood.
Authorities arrested eight people Sunday who allegedly cut through some fencing around the Navy land to enter the bombing range, Gordon said.
In another area near the Navy's Camp Garcia facility, Navy personnel and U.S. marshals sprayed tear gas at dozens of protesters who allegedly cut through fencing and threw rocks at military and federal guards, Gordon said. The crowd dispersed and there were no arrests in that incident, Gordon said.
So far, 136 protesters have been arrested since Thursday night for entering the range in hopes of thwarting the exercises, which began Friday.
On the occasion of the beatification, Puerto Rico's governor, Sila Calderon, asked Pope John Paul II to help bring a permanent stop to U.S. bombing exercises on Vieques. She made the request in a letter delivered to the pope by her secretary of state.
Rodriguez — one of five people beatified on Sunday — was a layman who died in 1963 after a life dedicated to the church. The Vatican has attributed a miracle to him: a woman recovered from non-Hodgkins lymphoma after praying to Rodriguez.
Some 25,000 people, including many Puerto Ricans, attended the ceremony in St. Peter's Square. Rodriguez, an office clerk, gained fame in Puerto Rico for his piety and his efforts to spread the study of liturgy and bring laypeople into the church.
Gearing up for the resumption of exercises in Vieques, activists claimed that about 40 protesters were on the Navy bombing range Sunday.
"We're going to keep putting people on the bombing range because we have demonstrated that we have been more efficient at getting people in there than the Navy has been at taking them out," said protest leader Carlos Zenon.
The Navy has used its Vieques range for six decades and says it is vital for national defense. It denies anti-Navy activists' claims that the exercises cause health problems.
Opposition to the exercises grew after an April 1999 accident in which two off-target bombs killed a Puerto Rican civilian guard on the range.
The current exercises involve about 15,000 sailors and Marines and a dozen cruisers and destroyers in the battle group led by the Norfolk, Virginia-based aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Jets also were dropping non-explosive bombs.