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Navy Pullout From Vieques Unlikely To Win Support After Attacks

September 13, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN (AP) - No two worlds could seem farther apart: The tranquil blue waters and swaying palms of Vieques and the mountains of charred wreckage left by a wave of terrorist attacks in the United States.

In reality, though, the two have become inseparable.

As Americans look for retribution in an assault that killed hundreds, if not thousands, Puerto Ricans fear a thirst for blood will prolong the U.S. Navy's training on Vieques - a battle they were hoping to win until Tuesday.

Some wonder if they should be the ones paying the high price of freedom.

"Sixty years of military training was of no help Tuesday," said Fabian Martinez, a former Air Force captain and Vieques resident. "Vieques is used to train troops to attack other countries. They need to train to protect the home front. The two have nothing to do with each other."

As Congress was preparing to debate the defense bill Tuesday, two hijacked planes slammed into New York's World Trade Center towers. Within an hour, another hit the Pentagon, and a third plane, likely bound for another government target, crashed in Pennsylvania.

Legislators say the bill could be heard as early as next week though changes are almost certain because of the attacks - namely more money for defense and more support for military training.

"In terms of Vieques, this is a defining point to decide what side you are on," said Bill Johnson, legislative director for Rep. Jim Hansen, a Republican from Utah who is on the House Armed Services Committee.

"Either you're on the side of peace and freedom and America, or you're on the side of the terrorists," Johnson said. "There is no middle ground, and everything from now on will be seen through that lens."

During training for the war in Kosovo two years ago, a Marine pilot dropped two bombs off-target that killed a civilian security guard on Vieques and caused a storm of protest.

Protesters who still regularly invade the Navy land to try to halt exercises announced Thursday they were holding off indefinitely.

"Now, for sure the people will show more support for the Navy," said Candido Ruiz, a kiosk owner on Vieques.

But angry letters to newspapers complained Vieques would be dragged into the issue of national defense.

President George W. Bush promised the Navy would leave Vieques by 2003, but built into the defense bill is a loophole that allows the Navy to stay if an alternative site can't be found.

"The bill has exactly what we wanted - a limitation on the unilateral decision for the Navy to leave," Johnson said.

Vieques residents say the training has harmed their health, environment, and economy, charges the Navy denies.

The Navy says its Vieques bombing range is invaluable in providing the opportunity for simultaneous attacks from land, air and sea.

"The number of bases that we have is totally unrelated to planes crashing into the World Trade towers," said Pike, director of the nonpartisan

When asked if the attacks would have any effect on the Navy's plan to leave in 2003, Rear Admiral Kevin Green, the highest ranking Navy officer in Puerto Rico, said it was too soon to say.

The Navy has trained on Vieques for every major conflict from World War II to Kosovo, and today uses Puerto Rico as a base to fight drug traffickers, among other things.

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