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Puerto Rico Bombing To End In 2003

Navy to Seek New Site For Training Exercises

By Mike Allen and Sue Anne Pressley

June 14, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company. All Rights Reserved.

President Bush plans to stop Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in 2003, ending a 60-year practice that has produced angry protests and escalating resentment from residents who complain it is dangerous.

Navy Secretary Gordon R. England plans to announce today that training will end in two years and that an outside panel will be charged with finding another suitable location for the training, White House and Pentagon officials said. Locations in and outside the United States will be considered, officials said.

The decision would in effect remove the administration from a standoff with local residents that has become increasingly violent and fractious, and that Republican strategists feared was alienating Hispanic voters, a group that is being ardently courted by both parties.

The Navy contends that no other area would allow the same combination of air, sea and land exercises, and it has called the weapons range "the irreplaceable crown jewel of our training." Vieques activists reacted coolly to Bush's plan, calling the withdrawal too slow.

England met at the White House yesterday with Bush's senior adviser, Karl C. Rove, and with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. England's plan is to be announced as soon as today, officials said. New York Gov. George E. Pataki met Tuesday with Rove and recommended that the administration stop the bombing, a position that few Republicans have taken.

Senior military officers voiced concern yesterday that the White House was so worried about the potential political losses with Hispanic voters that it was willing to sacrifice the military benefits of training on Vieques. Suspicion about Bush's intentions began to mount more than a month ago when the White House blocked the Navy from taking steps intended to increase chances that the residents would vote in a November referendum to continue the training, the officers said.

Under the plan, the military will announce that it intends to end all training on the island by May 2003. Under an agreement between former president Bill Clinton and former Puerto Rico governor Pedro Rossello, that is the date that the military would have had to leave Vieques if it lost the November vote.

A non-binding referendum will also be held by Puerto Rico on July 29.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is to appoint a panel of retired military officers and civilians to recommend an alternate site.

A Pentagon official said the Navy would be unlikely to retain any facilities on Vieques, which is home to 9,300 residents, if training ended.

If the Navy continues to insist that Vieques is irreplacable, a political battle may develop with pro-defense legislators opposing the administration.

Ten thousand Navy personnel aboard destroyers, frigates, submarines and ammunition ships took to the high seas yesterday 75 miles south of the island to begin a series of exercises. Navy officials also notified residents that they will begin air and ground maneuvers on the island Monday that will involve about 60 planes dropping inert, or dummy, bombs on targets at Navy installations.

Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Calderon, who arrived on the island yesterday for a prayer ceremony with bombing opponents, said she would not comment immediately on the Bush plan because she had not been officially told.

Protesters said they would continue to try to obstruct Monday's ground training because they do not want to wait two more years for the Navy to leave. At the house rented by the Committee for the Rescue & Development of Vieques across the street from Camp Garcia, protest leaders said they were not satisfied by Bush's decision.

"We don't want the bombing stopped in 2003 -- we want it stopped now," said Robert Rabin, a leader of the group. "The demands of the community are immediate and permanent cessation of all military activity, the removal of all military artifacts and equipment, and the decontamination and return of all lands to the people of Vieques."

The Navy maintains that Vieques is ideal because it is outside the path of commercial airline flights, allowing military pilots to deliver live air-to-ground ordnance from the same altitudes they would in combat.

"In nearly 60 years of range operations, not one civilian living or working off the range has ever been killed or placed at risk," the Navy says on a Web site largely devoted to trying to reassure neighbors.

The Navy bought two-thirds of the island in 1941 for use as a staging area during World War II. The Navy has since sold much of the land, but has used the island ever since for ship-to-shore and air-to-ground gunnery practice and amphibious landings.

Since the death of a civilian guard in a bombing exercise two years ago, protests have increased with each new training session. The Navy began dropping dummy bombs, which contain no explosives, after the accident, but residents allege health and environmental problems from the use of live ordnance for decades.

More than 180 protesters, including Al Sharpton, actor Edward James Olmos and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., were arrested during the last exercises in late April and early May.

Protesters were massing yesterday at a house across the road from Camp Garcia. At least 100 state police officers lined the narrow country road that leads to the naval installation.

Ivan Ventura, 36, a fisherman, says his livelihood is threatened by the Navy exercises but said he was unimpressed with the 2003 plan.

"It should stop now," Ventura said. "How many things can happen between now and 2003?"

Pressley reported from Vieques. Staff writer Roberto Suro in Washington and special correspondent John Marino in San Juan contributed to this report.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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