VIEQUES, Puerto Rico – The mayor of Vieques delivered a symbolic eviction notice to the U.S. Navy's base on the island Monday, leading some 300 protesters celebrating a referendum that called for an immediate end to Navy bombing exercises.
Protesters were angered by a White House announcement Monday that the Navy would leave Vieques only as scheduled in two years, despite the overwhelming vote in Sunday's non-binding referendum for an immediate withdrawal.
Protesters set an American flag ablaze outside the base, saying the Bush administration was ignoring the democratic will of the people.
"The position of the people of Vieques is clear," said Robert Rabin, an anti-Navy protest leader. "This is an issue of life or death and one cannot depend on the Navy or the president."
Later some 300 opponents of the Navy's bombing exercises marched on the base, led by Vieques' mayor, Damaso Serrano. The mayor presented the "eviction notice" to Navy personnel at the base.
Nearly 70 percent of some 5,000 voters supported an immediate end to the bombing and the Navy's withdrawal in Sunday's referendum.
Thirty percent supported the Navy remaining indefinitely and resuming bombing with live munitions. Only 1.7 percent backed President Bush's plan for the Navy to withdraw by 2003, and continue exercises with dummy bombs.
A legally binding federal referendum is scheduled for November but residents will not be given the option to have the exercises end immediately.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush was sticking by the original schedule.
"The president has always said it's very important to listen to the people of Puerto Rico, and he has," Fleischer said. "The president also believes it's very important to have a seamless transition so that our military can be the best trained it can be so we are prepared for any contingencies around the world."
The Navy says its bombing range on the tiny island off of Puerto Rico is needed to provide essential training that saves lives in combat.
The Navy has said a fresh round of exercises could begin as early as Wednesday.
Serrano warned Monday if the Navy and Bush don't stop the exercises, he will call for protesters to enter the bombing range to prevent bombing runs.
"If they don't stop the bombing we are going to ask for the people of Vieques to go inside the impact area to stop it themselves," he said.