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Bush says Navy will quit bombing Vieques

"These are our friends and neighbors," Bush said of Vieques residents  


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush said Thursday the U.S. military will end bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques because residents "don't want us there."

"My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises," said Bush. "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, who is meeting in Sweden with European Union leaders, said the U.S. Navy will find another site to conduct the bombing exercises within "a reasonable period of time."

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Senior Pentagon officials said the United States will end training at Vieques once the current agreement expires in May 2003.

Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Calderon said Bush was moving in the right direction, but had not gone far enough.

"It's still not enough for us. We need the bombing to stop permanently, as soon as possible," Calderon said.

On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers were stunned by the decision after months of statements from top Pentagon brass that the exercises are a critical part of U.S. military preparedness.

Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot who trained on Vieques, said the announcement should not have been made until an alternative site had been chosen for "totally essential training."

"I would have made sure exactly where the United States Navy, Marine Corps -- and sometimes Army and Air Force -- can get this level of training before I abandoned Vieques," said McCain. (More on congressional reaction)

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declined to say what he thought personally of the decision, except to say he was in "full agreement" with the president, the Navy secretary and the deputy defense secretary, who worked on the issue.

During his announcement, Bush made a point of thanking the Navy for resolving the matter, but Pentagon sources said the decision was imposed on them by the White House.

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.

One senior administration official told CNN that senior Navy officials met Wednesday with Karl Rove, a top Bush adviser, "to receive the Navy's guidance" on its needs and plans for Vieques. (More on the White House decision)

The Navy has conducted exercises on Vieques for six decades
The Navy has conducted exercises on Vieques for six decades  

Rove is Bush's top political adviser, policing how major policy decisions could impact targeted political constituencies, including the growing Hispanic constituency.

The Navy had been 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 referendum was agreed to under President Bill Clinton. His wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, says Bush's decision bypasses the earlier agreement.

"Rather than wait to hear the voice of the people it appears that the White House wants to bypass the citizens of Puerto Rico, and particularly Vieques,and to set in stone a policy of continuing to bomb until the year 2003. I think that is unacceptable," she said.

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.

CNN Correspondents Kate Snow and Kelly Wallace contributed to this report.





RELATED STORIES:
RELATED SITES:
• History of Vieques Island, Puerto Rico
• U.S. Navy
• The U.S. Navy's Activities On The Island of Vieques

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