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Puerto Rico, Navy on Vieques "Collision" Course

July 21, 1999
Copyright © 1999 REUTERS LIMITED. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON, July 20 (Reuters) - Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello said on Tuesday the American commonwealth was on a "collision course" with the U.S. Navy over the military's use of a small island off its shores for live-fire training.

Rossello, visiting Washington to meet with Clinton administration officials and members of Congress, said at a briefing for reporters that the dispute over Vieques island threatened to become "dangerous."

"Our position in Puerto Rico is on a collision course with the Navy's position," Rossello said. "The positions are not resolvable at this time."

Vieques , a 33,000-acre (13,200-hectare) island off Puerto Rico's eastern shore, has about 9,400 residents. Two-thirds of the island is owned by the Navy and has been used for gunnery practice and mock beach assaults by U.S. Marines for the past 50 years.

In April, a private security guard employed by the Navy was killed by stray shells in an incident that prompted widespread protests.

On July 4, about 50,000 people demonstrated outside the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Ceiba to demand an end to the shelling of Vieques . Last weekend in the Puerto Rico capital, San Juan, about 50 protesters clashed [clashed, had a confrontation] with riot police while the USS Yorktown was participating in a local festival.

President Bill Clinton has appointed a commission to study the possibility of ending the use of Vieques as a target range.

Earlier this month, a commission formed by Rossello said the Navy's use of Vieques harmed the island's environment, posed health risks to its residents and violated their civil and human rights.

Rossello said if Clinton did not order a halt to Navy shelling on Vieques soon, he may sue on behalf of the island's residents. "In the end, the decision will be the president's," Rossello said.

"Unless this (dispute) is solved to the benefit of the United States citizens in Vieques ... this will be an unresolved and potentially dangerous problem," he said.

Last Thursday, Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said live-fire training at Vieques was essential to U.S. national security.

Navy officials said a review of 18 sites from the Caribbean to Maine found Vieques to be the only one offering the opportunity for comprehensive training, from sea-launched aircraft capable of flying over the target zone to beaches that allow training for Marine landings.

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