U.S. to end Vieques bombing in 2003
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush said Thursday the U.S. military will end bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques because of widespread protests against them.
"My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises," said Bush, citing a "lot of reasons" for that decision.
Among them: "There's been some harm done to people in the past. These are our friends and neighbors, and they don't want us there."
Bush said the U.S. Navy will find another site to conduct the bombing exercises within "a reasonable period of time."
Senior Pentagon officials said the controversial bombing exercises would end when the current agreement on the range expires in May 2003. An official announcement is expected from the Pentagon later Thursday.
Polls show the Navy was headed to defeat in a local referendum in November on the future of live ordnance exercises.
Navy Secretary Gordon England concurs with the decision, sources said, and he is informing members of Congress of the details of the plan.
Privately, Navy officials are fuming about the decision, and Navy commanders continue to insist that without training at Vieques, ships will have to be deployed in a less-than-combat-ready status.
Pentagon sources labeled the initial decision to abandon Vieques "a political decision" and that senior Navy officers were not consulted about the military ramifications of the move. But an administration official disputes that, insisting the Navy is simply upset because it lost the battle.
Congressional conservatives also see plans to abandon Vieques as betrayal of the U.S. Navy by an administration that professed support for the military.
Georgia Republican Bob Barr expressed concern Wednesday night about halting the exercises.
"There is no other place that we have where we can use live fire as we do in Vieques. That would put a serious hole in our ability to conduct training to protect our troops," Barr said on "CNN Wolf Blitzer Reports."
The Navy was banking on a vote set for November in which the 9,000 residents of the tiny Puerto Rican island were to decide whether to accept a package of economic incentives in return for allowing the Navy to continue using the range after May 2003.
But administration sources cite a number of polls showing sentiment against the Navy running between 55 percent and 88 percent of the local population.
Until the vote in November, the Navy is using only non-explosive "inert ordnance" in its exercises.
The U.S. military has conducted exercises on Vieques since 1941.
Controversy over use of the island for bombing practice has grown since October 1999, when an errant bomb killed a civilian security guard. In late April, about 180 protesters were arrested at the main gates of the Navy facility on the island during the Navy's resumption of exercises.
Demonstrators allege that the island's 9,000 residents are at higher risk of cancer and are exposed to dangerous levels of noise. They want the bombing stopped permanently.
The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and its escort ships are scheduled to begin training exercises at Vieques this weekend, and demonstrations are expected.
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