US sends in marines as showdown looms at Puerto Rico bombing range

The American territory of Puerto Rico was on edge last night as federal authorities laid final plans to evict a group of about 50 protesters who have been camped on a US military bombing range there for more than a year.

In a startling show of force, three US Navy warships were on stand-by off the coast of Vieques, a small island off the eastern edge of Puerto Rico, a large part of which has served as a US bombing range for 60 years. Helicopters hovered over the area yesterday.

Widespread resentment in Puerto Rico over the range boiled over in April last year when a stray bomb from a US plane killed a civilian guard at the base. Protesters have been illegally camped inside its fence ever since and bombing has been suspended.

It became apparent that a showdown was imminent when the Navy took up position on Monday. The ships were said to be carrying 1,000 marines who will secure the perimeter of the base once the protesters have been forced out by FBI agents.

Although they are few in number, the protesters represent a delicate problem for the Clinton administration. Any confrontation at the base could enflame anti-US feelings among Puerto Ricans, both in Puerto Rico itself and in several US cities. The crisis comes just 10 days after Washington enraged American Cubans by seizing the six-year-old shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez from his relatives in Miami.

The issue is especially dangerous for Hillary Clinton, who is running neck and neck with her opponent, Rudolph Giuliani, for a US Senate seat in New York state. There are large Puerto Rican and Hispanic communities in New York city. Local leaders have warned they will respond to any eviction of protesters from Vieques by bringing Times Square to a halt with a mass rally.

In January, Mrs Clinton was forced to denounce her husband, President Bill Clinton, when he signed an agreement with the Governor of Puerto Rico on the future of the Vieques range. Under it, the US would resume training at the base with "dummy bombs" for five years. During that time a referendum on the future of the range would be held.

Most of the protesters on Vieques, which is 52 square miles and has lush Caribbean beaches, have promised passive resistance to any eviction. "I'm not going to fight with them," said Luis Gadalupe, 82, who has helped block the main gates to the range. "But to get me out they are going to have to arrest me."

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