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Bush Plans Vieques Withdrawal

Will Look for New Navy Bombing Exercise Location

By Paul Richter
LOS ANGELES TIMES

Facing intensifying opposition, the Bush administration is planning to withdraw the Navy from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques and seek another spot to conduct the Atlantic fleet’s bombing exercises, a defense official said Wednesday.

Navy Secretary Gordon England will announce, probably Thursday, that he will convene a panel to search for a new training site, with the goal of ending Vieques exercises by May 2003. While England is making no guarantee other arrangements for training can be made, he believes they can, the official said.

That would probably mean, however, that the Navy will need to develop a fundamentally different approach to the training that it has long insisted is essential to the readiness of the Atlantic fleet.

Critics have contended that the large-scale exercises brought danger, noise and pollution that jeopardized the health of the idyllic island’s 9,300 residents. Opposition to the exercises grew two years ago after a civilian guard was killed on the range by a stray bomb. The Navy has since stopped using live ammunition.

The issue has recently developed into an increasingly violent standoff and has put the Bush administration publicly at odds with Puerto Rican officials at a time when it is courting Latino voters.

Rep. Jose E. Serrano, (D-N.Y.), a frequent critic of the bombing, said Wednesday that he had no official word on the White House plans. But, he said, if the Navy were to “stop all bombing and plan to leave in 2003, then that’s something we can look at favorably.

“But if they continue the bombing and say they’re leaving in 2003, then that’s unacceptable because the people in Puerto Rico and on Vieques and those of us in the 50 states who are involved in this issue want the bombing to stop immediately,” Serrano told Reuters.

Protesters have been preparing in recent days to try to disrupt exercises scheduled for next week that will involve 60 planes dropping dummy bombs on targets at Navy installations. On Wednesday, a group of surface ships and submarines carrying 10,000 Navy personnel began another set of exercises in waters 75 miles south of the island.

The defense official, who asked not to be named because the official announcement is still pending, said England made the decision to seek a new venue.

But The Associated Press reported that the decision came after a White House meeting between England, senior White House political strategist Karl Rove, deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

The Navy has conducted exercises on Vieques for 60 years and has contended that it needed combined air, sea and amphibious training. Battle groups are trained at the island before heading across the Atlantic for missions in Europe and Asia.