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Vieques Issue Is Put on Hold in Response to Terrorism


September 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 – With the nation on a war footing, leading Democrats are backing away from their demand that the Navy bring an immediate halt to its bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

In a series of interviews, Democrats are arguing that the need to preserve the nation's military readiness far outweighs concerns about the Navy's bombing runs on the island.

The lawmakers say the training exercises have taken on a significance that simply did not exist before Sept. 11, when terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon placed the nation on high military alert.

"Everyone understands that times have changed," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who has been a staunch critic of the Navy's operations on Vieques. "You can't pull the rug out from under the war effort at this moment."

Representative Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, also called for shelving the fight over Vieques, though he said it was a difficult decision for him.

"I think we have to recognize the reality of the moment," Mr. Menendez said.

Even Gov. Sila María Calderón of Puerto Rico, who has been urging the Bush administration to end the bombing practices immediately, does not believe that this is the time to engage in a debate over the Navy's presence in Vieques, an adviser said.

"Governor Calderón's position on Vieques is well known," the adviser said. "But she believes that this is a time to focus attention on the recovery effort."

The shift in attitude occurred even as the Navy resumed its bombing practice on the eastern tip of Vieques this week, a move that has not provoked the kind of protests that similar exercises have in the past.

Anti-Navy organizers on the island, mindful of the mood in the rest of the country, have agreed not to engage in civil disobedience for the time being. But hostility against the Navy's presence has not abated.

"This is not over," said Carmen Valencia, who opposes the Naval exercises. "This can't be over because the Navy is still bombing our island."

The Navy has conducted exercises on Vieques for more than 50 years. Military officials argue that the island is a valuable training site because it enables the armed forces to conduct naval, aerial and amphibious exercises simultaneously.

President Bush, under heavy pressure to resolve the Vieques issue, has already set the Navy's withdrawal for May 2003. But that plan has come under intense attack from critics who contend that the bombings pose a danger to local residents.

None of the people interviewed said they had changed their mind about their ultimate goal: to move the Navy operations. But they worried that the nation's military readiness would be undermined if the Navy was driven from Vieques now.

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