VIEQUES, Puerto Rico – The U.S. Navy, already under fire for resuming bombing on a training range on Vieques, came under a new criticism Friday for allegedly using excessive force against protesters.
Navy personnel fired tear gas and U.S. Marshals fired bean bag and foam rubber projectiles at eight journalists and five protesters on Vieques late Thursday. Tomas van Houtryve, a photographer for The Associated Press, was hit in the elbow by a projectile.
The Navy said the protesters threw a flare toward them and tried to break into federal property. Anti-Navy activists, however, said the protesters were peaceful and unarmed.
The confrontation came after the Navy began a fresh round of exercises on its bombing range on Vieques island, and it reflected the heated atmosphere after Vieques residents voted overwhelmingly earlier this week for the Navy to stop manuevers.
Demonstrators threw rocks and homemade bombs at the Camp Garcia base throughout the night and early Friday, the Navy said. Authorities detained 19 protesters by Friday morning, it said. Some were thought to have invaded Navy land, trying to reach the range and stop the exercises.
The Navy defended its actions. "The use of force was appropriate because a flare was launched at them, the protesters were tearing down federal property and rocks were being thrown," spokesman Bob Nelson said.
But Van Houtryve and other journalists said protesters had no tools to rip the fence and did not fire a flare.
"Now, the Navy fired on people who were clearly journalists," said Father Nelson Lopez, a Catholic priest on Vieques. "The Navy sees everyone on the other side of the fence as an enemy."
"Nobody was throwing rocks," said Amy Toensing, 31, a free-lance photographer from Maine. "They were just yelling 'Navy go home' and they (security forces) started spraying pepper spray."
Previous reports said rubber bullets had been fired.
But Mavis Dezalovich, a U.S. Marshals spokeswoman in Washington, said the Marshals fired a bean bag and a foam projectile. She said they were investigating whether a third, plastic, projectile was fired.
Protesters say there are 23 activists still on Navy land, intending to place themselves in the line of fire to stop the bombing.
"The Navy says they're protecting the law. What kind of law is that?" said Vieques Mayor Damaso Serrano. "They are trying to use force to stifle people's rights to express themselves."
The latest Vieques exercises started Thursday, four days after 70 percent of Vieques residents voted for an immediate end to the bombing in a nonbinding local referendum. Thirty percent supported the Navy remaining indefinitely and resuming live bombing. President George Bush has promised the Navy will leave by 2003. But only 1.7 percent of voters among Vieques' 9,100 residents backed his plan.
The exercises, expected to last 10 days, involve ship-to-shore shelling, air-to-ground bombing and beach assaults with 23,000 personnel. They are some of the biggest maneuvers since a civilian guard was killed by off-target bombs on the range in 1999, when the Navy began using inert bombs. The bombing is conducted 4 miles from civilian areas on the 18-mile-long island just off Puerto Rico's main island.