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U.S. considers giving up Vieques bombing range



From Jamie McIntyre
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Pentagon sources say the White House floated the idea of giving up use of the Navy bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques after May 2003, only to pull back on the plan in the face of angry reaction from Capitol Hill and the Navy.

Sources says newly confirmed Navy Secretary Gordon England, after conferring late Wednesday with White House officials, was prepared to issue a statement Friday saying the Navy planned to give up use of the disputed training facility after the May of 2003, but those plans were put on hold after a firestorm of criticism from conservatives in Congress.

A Navy spokesman, Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli insisted there had been no decision on the future of Vieques, "We have not made any decision changing our currents status on Vieques. We continue to explore the best ways to achieve our overarching objective to conduct the effective training of deploying Navy forces. For the near term that must include the use of the facilities at Vieques."

Privately, Navy officials are fuming about the initial decision, and Navy commanders continue to insist 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.

One senior administration official tells CNN that senior Navy officials met Wednesday with top Bush adviser Karl Rove. This official said the meeting was "to receive the Navy's guidance" on its needs and plans for Vieques.

A second source familiar with the issue said "there is little reason to believe that training there would continue past May 2003."

That is the expiration of the current agreement for Vieques training. An agreement negotiated during the Clinton administration allows for a referendum, and if the Navy won the referenda the training could continue. But this second source said "within a day or two" the Navy's policy would be clear.

Rove is Mr. Bush's top political adviser and as such polices how major policy decisions could impact target political constituencies.

Meanwhile a vote is set for November in which the 9,000 residents of the tiny Puerto Rican island will decide whether to accept a package of economic incentives in return for allowing the Navy to continue using the range after May 2003.

Until then the Navy is using only non-explosive "inert ordnance".

The U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and its escort ships are scheduled to begin training exercises at Vieques this coming weekend.

It was expected that increasingly confrontational demonstrators would again protest at the main gates to the U.S. Navy facility.

In late April about 180 protesters were arrested at a demonstration against the Navy's continued use of the inhabited island for bombing training

Last year, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested as they sought to block use of the bombing range, protesting the accidental bombing death of a civilian there. In April 1999, a Marine Corps jet inadvertently dropped two bombs off target, killing a civilian guard working on the bombing range.

The Pentagon has said in the past that it needed the range, which it has used since 1941, for combat training for Navy and Marine pilots.





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