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Defuse New Tensions Over Vieques Bombs

August 8, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Morning Call. All Rights Reserved.

The turning point for Vieques , Puerto Rico , the U.S. Navy's prime Atlantic training ground, came in April 1999. A U.S. Marine Corps jet dropped two bombs off target, killing a civilian security guard working on the Navy bombing range. The tragic incident prompted a series of protests by activists claiming the Navy's exercises endanger the residents of the outlying island.

Initially, following the fatal accident, Navy exercises were suspended. Protesters subsequently built camps on the range, which effectively halted exercises for a year until U.S. marshals cleared them out by force in May.

About 5,000 protesters marched Sunday to protest new U.S. military exercises announced last week: Jets from the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier had begun dropping dummy bombs Thursday on Vieques . Ships from its accompanying battle group plan to begin shelling the island -- maneuvers now are with non-explosive bombs and shells -- later this month. To the people of Vieques , even dummy bombs symbolize an improper intrusion on their island. As the Navy's exercises escalate, and tensions mount, it is time to revisit plans for a Vieques referendum.

The Clinton administration made a major concession in January when the President and Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro J. Rossello reached an agreement: The Navy could resume limited bombing practice with dummy weapons until a referendum is held. The referendum, expected to occur next year, would let the residents of Vieques choose between letting the Navy resume full use of the range with live bombs and ammunition, or expelling the military by May 1, 2003.

Earlier this year, we said both the U.S. and Puerto Rico should move up the referendum date, and the sooner, the better, even before U.S. elections in November. Activists on the 21-mile-long island say they fear a new U.S. president may renege on Clinton's deal.

Those concerns could be eliminated if the Clinton administration works to move up the date of the referendum, rather than risk further uncertainty for the military and the 9,400 civilians who live between the Navy munitions depot on the western third of the island and the bombing range in the east.

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