Puerto Rico's governor backs U.S. plan to reopen bomb range

Clinton offers millions in aid for Viequans

Navy would close facility early

February 01, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Puerto Rico's governor supported yesterday the resumption of nonexplosive bombing at the Navy's politically contentious firing range on Vieques, after President Clinton said the Navy would vacate the range two years earlier than initially proposed.

Gov. Pedro Rossello said he supports a Clinton administration plan that would provide $40 million in development aid to the island of Vieques in exchange for the immediate use of nonexplosive ordnance for 90 days per year, down from 180 days per year using live bombs.

Should the 9,300 Viequans support the resumption of live-fire training in a referendum that could be held as early as this fall, they would receive another $50 million for economic development. If they reject the Navy's presence, officials said, the Navy would leave by May 1, 2003 -- two years earlier than previously proposed by the Pentagon.

"This course will give the people of Vieques the right to determine the future of the island while assuring that our training needs are met," Clinton said in a statement.

The Puerto Rican Independence Party rejected the plan, and a Puerto Rican activist immediately noted that Rossello has said in the past that no more bombs -- even inert ones -- should fall on Vieques.

"I can't see how the governor would sign off on this. That's completely against the official policy of the government -- no more bombs of any kind," said Flavio Cumpiano, a lawyer for the Vieques residents. "I think it will be rejected by the people of Vieques."

The Navy suspended live-fire exercises on Vieques in April after bombs from a Marine Corps F-18 warplane fell short, killing a civilian guard on the range and injuring four others.

Since then, scores of protesters have occupied the range and demanded that the Navy leave, spurring an emotional debate over the island's fate that has swept over Puerto Rico, embroiled Congress and become a litmus test for Puerto Rican support in the campaigns of Vice President Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Both Gore and Mrs. Clinton, pressed by voters and members of Congress of Puerto Rican descent, called for an end to bombing on the 54-square-mile island. Puerto Rico's governor is a top Gore fund-raiser.

While Rossello dismissed similar proposals offered by the Pentagon and the White House, the governor supported the latest plan in a letter to Clinton, calling it "a fair and positive basis" for ending the conflict. He spent yesterday trying to convince more reluctant political elements on the island to support the plan, officials in Washington and Puerto Rico said.

Yesterday's White House proposal differed from earlier plans in offering that the Navy would leave earlier and in the $50 million aid package if a referendum allows live bombing to resume.

That referendum would be scheduled for May 1, 2001, though it could be held nine months earlier or later, depending on what the Navy requests.

The Clinton proposal also calls for Puerto Rico to help federal agencies remove protesters from Vieques and secure the range, which Puerto Rican officials have been reluctant to do.

"I think this is probably the best we could get," a Pentagon official said.

Top military leaders say live-fire exercises are vital in providing a realistic environment for the training of U.S. forces. Vieques is the Navy's only live-fire range on the East Coast.

Ships, planes and troops of the Navy and Marine Corps have used the range since 1941 for training for World War II amphibious landings in the Pacific to last year's bombing in Kosovo.

But some Puerto Ricans have complained for years about the noise and pollution caused by the bombing, and suspect that it might have led to elevated cancer rates.

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