WASHINGTON -- Navy officials acknowledged last night that they were delaying the departure of a two-star admiral for Puerto Rico, citing the reluctance of island officials to resume talks on the future of a controversial bombing range.
Rear Adm. Kevin Green had been due to arrive in Puerto Rico tomorrow to open discussions with leaders on the use of the Vieques bombing range for nonexplosive bombs.
Green's appointment was a key part of a plan announced this week by President Clinton and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. Clinton agreed to stop live bombing at the 58-year-old range and to close it after five years, unless Viequans agree to let it remain open. Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello quickly rejected the plan.
Pentagon sources said that as a result of the governor's comments, the Navy decided to delay Green's departure.
"We're postponing the start of his command until the Puerto Rican government says, `We're willing to agree on dialogue,' " Rear Adm. Thomas Jurkowsky, a Navy spokesman, said last night. "They're certainly not talking to us."
Clinton has said the use of dummy -- or inert -- ordnance would resume in the spring, in time for the USS George Washington carrier group to train at Vieques. The plan calls for 90 days of training with inert bombs, instead of the previous 180 days of training with live fire.
Protesters have occupied the range since shortly after a bomb from a Marine Corps jet fell short and killed a range guard in April. The Navy then closed the range.
As a result of the impasse, the Navy was forced this week to use bombing ranges and other training sites in Florida, North Carolina and Scotland for the USS Eisenhower carrier group, which is to leave Norfolk in February for the Persian Gulf.
A spokesman for Rossello, Alfonso Aguilar, said: "We have no reason to trust the Navy, unfortunately. We are going to continue the process of dialogue with the White House." He said the governor's staff has been in touch with senior White House aides and expects the president's initial proposal to "improve."
He said Puerto Rican officials are looking for a specific date when the Navy will leave Vieques, "one that is legally enforceable."
He said other parts of the plan -- such as the number of days of training with inert bombs -- would be under negotiation.