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House Stands By Navy Accord Over Puerto Rican Bombing Range


March 30, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON - The House voted Wednesday to stand by President Clinton's plan to provide $40 million for economic, health and environmental aid to people who live near the Navy's firing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

By a 232-183 vote, lawmakers rejected legislation by Reps. Tillie Fowler, R-Fla., and James Hansen, R-Utah, that would have in effect scuttled a compromise over the controversial site where the Navy has practiced bombing and shelling for decades.

Fowler's amendment would have required the resumption of training with live ammunition before the aid could be provided. In addition, Clinton would have to first certify that all protesters had left the site, and the aid could not be used to pay for the referendum .

"Remarkably, a group of people engaged in civil disobedience have occupied a critical military installation with no reaction from the administration," Fowler said.

Opponents said the provision would unravel the entire agreement and worsen the chances that Vieques residents would approve a resumption of full use of the target range.

"We can stand here and beat our chest," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., adding, "If we take the $40 million out, there won't be any agreement."


Admiral Says Gulf Training Deficient Without Puerto Rican Bombing Range


March 29, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

ABOARD THE USS GEORGE WASHINGTON - Rear Adm. Richard Naughton spoke bluntly but calmly amid the thudding and roaring of jets landing and taking off above the war room aboard this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

The training sailors and air crews are getting during a massive exercise in the Gulf of Mexico does not measure up to those previously held in Puerto Rico, Naughton told reporters Tuesday.

"Will they be as ready as if we had trained in Puerto Rico? Absolutely not," he said.

Naughton, commander of Carrier Group 4, is overseeing the exercise by the George Washington's 11-ship battle group, the first to visit the gulf since World War II.

The exercise was moved from Puerto Rico because of protests against the Navy's use of Vieques, a small island, as a bombing target for the past 50 years. An errant bomb killed a civilian security guard there last April.

"The readiness of the battle group will be diminished," Naughton said. "There's no secret to that. We don't have the air space here. We don't have the sea space here. We don't have the live ranges."

The Norfolk, Virginia-based George Washington, with about 70 aircraft, has been cruising 115 miles (180 kilometers) south of Pensacola for a week and will remain through Sunday when exercise ends.

The carrier's jets have been dropping live bombs on a weapons testing range at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle. They also have been confronting "hostile" fighters from Eglin and Pensacola Naval Air Station.

The military planes, however, must share air space over the gulf with airlines flying between Florida and New Orleans, Houston and other points west.

Brad Grant, an air traffic official from the Federal Aviation Administration's Jacksonville Center, is aboard the carrier to make sure everyone abides by restrictions designed to keep airliners safely away from military planes yet stay on schedule. So far, the exercise has had no impact on commercial flights, Grant said.

Navy pilots are free of limits on when and where they can fly in Puerto Rico because Vieques is away from airline routes.

"We're sharing the air space with quite a few more people than we're used to," said Lt. Dan Hume, 29, an F/A-18 Hornet pilot from Indianapolis. "Our training scenario is interrupted by the presence of those aircraft."

Tactics and bomb size also are limited by noise and safety restrictions on the Eglin range, which is about six miles from the nearest homes, and warships have no place for shore gunnery practice, Naughton said. In addition, parts of the gulf are too shallow for the battle group's two submarines.

Making mistakes in combat because of inadequate live-fire training could have dire consequences when the battle group deploys in June to help enforce a United Nations no-fly zone over southern Iraq, he said.

"The No. 1 thing that would make Saddam Hussein happy," Naughton said, "would be to parade an American fighter pilot down the streets of Baghdad."

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