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U.S. Navy Seeks Better Vieques Ties

by Manuel Ernesto Rivera

February 18, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - A top U.S. Navy official on Friday said the Navy could build a relationship with the residents of Puerto Rico's Vieques Island, whose protests at a military base have halted bombing exercises.

Rear Adm. Kevin Green is the U.S. government's main liaison with Puerto Rico on the issue of resuming the Vieques bombing exercises.

"One of my goals is to work closely with the people and improve the relationship between the Navy and the people of Vieques,'' Green told reporters Friday in San Juan.

Green is head of a new U.S. Naval Forces South Command in Puerto Rico, established to consolidate Atlantic and hemispheric commands, the U.S. Atlantic Fleet announced in a statement Friday.

For about 60 years, the Navy has bombed and shelled Vieques as a military training ground. The island's 9,400 residents are sandwiched between a western zone where the military stores weapons in bunkers and an eastern training ground, where bombings, shellings and mock invasions are staged.

After an errant bomb killed a civilian security guard and injured four others in April, protesters moved in, camping on the bombing range to thwart further exercises. The exercises were temporarily suspended, and Puerto Rico demanded the bombing range be shut down.

However, President Clinton and Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello reached an agreement last month that allows the Navy to continue training on Vieques for now, but only using inert bombs.

The Navy's future on the island will be decided by the residents of Vieques. They will vote in a referendum, likely to be held in 2001, on whether the Navy should stay or go.

Green's duty is to act as a liaison in that sensitive process. He told reporters at his first news conference in Puerto Rico on Friday that his first mission was "to listen and not talk too much.''

Some of the Navy's critics in Puerto Rico called a news conference earlier this week in Washington to press demands that the Navy leave immediately.

Although last month's agreement allows the Navy to resume training with dummy bombs, it nevertheless has moved training of the USS George Washington battle group next month from Vieques to Florida.

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