WASHINGTON -- President Clinton ordered the military yesterday to stop its live-fire exercises at a Puerto Rican bombing range that the Pentagon says is vital to combat-ready forces, and to end military training there within five years.
Under Clinton's proposal, live-fire bombing could resume only if the residents of Vieques, who have demanded that the military leave, agree to it.
The president said he will direct Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to work on a proposal for resuming live-fire training that would include a $40 million community development grant for the island.
Without the approval of the 9,300 residents, Clinton said, the Navy and Marine Corps are permitted to use only nonexplosive bombs on Vieques. The Navy, top U.S. military commanders around the world and a presidential panel strongly back the need for live fire.
Clinton said in a statement that his proposal is the "best avenue" between the Navy's training needs and the concerns of Puerto Rico, where many residents oppose reopening the 58-year-old range. The range was closed by the Navy in April after an errant bomb killed a Puerto Rican range security guard.
The proposal outlined by Clinton was immediately rejected by Gov. Pedro Rossello and other officials in Puerto Rico. "The governor feels very disappointed with the entire plan," said his spokesman, Alfonso Aguilar. "He believes it's unacceptable."
Rossello thinks the Navy has "no credibility," Aguilar said, because it violated an earlier agreement. The spokesman noted that Clinton's offer leaves open the possibility of an open-ended Navy presence if Vieques residents agree to it.
"We think it's sickening," said Flavio Cumpiano, a Washington lawyer for the residents. He is particularly angry about the economic package designed to sweeten the proposal, he said.
" `We're just going to throw money at you,' " Cumpiano said in characterizing the government's position. "If anything, it will strengthen the will of the people."
Rossello has called for continued talks but has declined to say whether he might accept nonexplosive bombing on Vieques. Most Puerto Rican leaders have rejected even those bombs.
Clinton said training with non-explosive bombs will resume in the spring on Vieques and continue no more than five years. The Navy will train with the inert bombs on Vieques for 90 days a year rather than the current 180 days a year with live fire.
It is not clear how the administration will respond if Puerto Ricans continue to oppose even training with nonexplosive bombs. Administration officials have been reluctant to send the FBI and U.S. marshals to arrest the demonstrators who have occupied the range since May.
Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized Clinton's proposal and the Puerto Ricans, who Warner said "have knowingly turned their backs" on the Navy's training needs.
Clinton and Cohen said that while talks continue, the carrier battle group of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower will be unable to use the range and will instead take part in amphibious training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and aircraft live-fire training in Florida.
The ships of the battle group will train in Scotland. All components of the battle group will try to conduct the coordinated training usually carried out on Vieques at a training area in the Mediterranean.
"As commander in chief, I cannot send our servicemen and women into harm's way if they have not been adequately trained," Clinton said.
Some officials said privately that what Adm. Jay L. Johnson, the chief of naval operations, has called a "patchwork" of training for the Eisenhower battle group will leave the United States with the lowest combat-readiness in memory.
"Personally, I think it's a disgrace," a Pentagon official said. "You have to rely on other countries to come to your rescue for your readiness."
Johnson said the battle group will not be combat-ready when it leaves in February for the Persian Gulf but that subsequent training overseas should put it at a "sufficient" level of readiness.
Despite the opposition of Puerto Rican leaders, Johnson and Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said they hope the live-fire exercises will resume eventually.
A Navy report concluded that live fire was necessary to adequately train spotters and the crews of 5-inch guns who must direct fire safely near landing Marines. The Navy has used Vieques to train for combat missions since World War II.
Since the dispute began, the Navy has said that it considered 18 other locations for training on the East Coast but that none offered the uncrowded sea and air lanes or the deep waters surrounding Vieques, an 11-mile-long island off Puerto Rico's east coast.
The furor has taken on a political cast with the involvement of Puerto Rican leaders and their allies in the United States, who have vigorously lobbied Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gore and Mrs. Clinton have spoken out against a resumption of bombing.
Rossello is a supporter of Gore, and the first lady, who is expected to be a Senate candidate in New York, is courting the more than 1 million New Yorkers of Puerto Rican heritage. Some New York lawmakers made her stance on Vieques a condition for their support.
Even before the guard was killed on the range, Puerto Ricans had long complained about the noise and environmental damage from years of Navy bombing.
Some Navy officials have conceded that their service has not been a good neighbor and has broken promises from a 1983 agreement with Puerto Rico that spelled out specifics on bombing and economic and environmental aid.