updated 3/20/2009 6:53:05 PM ET 2009-03-20T22:53:05

Six years after angry protesters chased the Navy out of Vieques, the U.S. military has provoked a new outcry by suggesting it could re-establish a presence on the tiny Puerto Rican island.

In testimony before a Senate committee this week, military leaders said the island once known for its bombing range is well placed to extend America's reach in the Caribbean, potentially playing a role in airspace surveillance or fighting drug traffickers.

Activists and government officials in the U.S. territory say they are ready for another resistance fight. Protests against the bombing united islanders of all political stripes, and the Navy's departure in 2003 from Vieques was celebrated as a victory for Puerto Rico.

"We the Puerto Ricans fought for so many years to end the bombing and to have the land turned over to the people of Vieques. We are opposed to it being used for anything else, much less that it go back to the military," Jose Paralitici, a veteran anti-Navy activist, said Thursday.

Puerto Rico's delegate to Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, has issued a statement rejecting any military exercises on the island, backtracking on an earlier statement that the government was open to a military presence that did not involve more shelling.

Creation of bombing range
The U.S. began war maneuvers on the island off Puerto Rico's east coast in 1948 after buying 25,000 acres — about two-thirds of the island — to create the bombing range.

Two errant bombs killed a civilian security guard in 1999, sparking mass protests that also blamed the military for fouling the environment on the island of 9,000 people. Then-President George W. Bush announced in 2001 that the Navy would stop Vieques operations two years later.

The island has since placed new emphasis on tourism. A cleanup began in 2005 to clear thousands of unexploded rockets, cluster bombs and other munitions from the site of the former training range that is now a Fish and Wildlife Service refuge.

In the testimony Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., chief of the U.S. Northern Command, said the area could contribute to national defense "on a small basis."

"We are looking to work with both the Navy and the National Guard to see how we might take advantage of some of the systems and equipment that is still in place in the Vieques area," Renuart said.

'We lost the battle'
A spokesman for the Northern Command, Canadian navy Lt. Desmond James, said he could not discuss the topic because a Senate request is pending for a more thorough answer.

The assessment was requested by Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, who said at the hearing that several years have passed since "we lost the battle of Vieques." Existing facilities in Vieques could play a key role in missions including counterterrorism, anti-piracy and humanitarian assistance, he said Thursday.

With the loss of its training area, the Navy also closed the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the eastern coast of the Puerto Rican mainland, which employed 6,300 people. That left Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as the only U.S. naval base in the Caribbean.

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