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Panel recommends renewed practice bombing on Puerto Rican island

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A presidential panel recommended Monday that
the Navy be allowed to resume practice bombing on the Puerto Rican
island of Vieques -- over the objections of the local population and
the Puerto Rican government -- but that it prepare to abandon the
island within five years.

The recommendation drew immediate protest in Puerto Rico, where
sentiment against the Navy has been growing since a civilian
security guard was killed in a bombing accident in April.
Protesters have been camping out on the bombing range since then,
but the Navy is eager to resume using it.

Defense Secretary William Cohen, who was traveling in the Middle
East, issued a written statement calling the report balanced. But
he also asked the panel members to hold additional talks with the
Puerto Ricans and the Navy before he makes a final recommendation
to President Clinton.

"It's clear from the panel's report there are serious concerns
among the residents of Vieques which need and deserve the careful
attention of the Navy and the Department of Defense," Cohen wrote.
Without suggesting any particular solution, Cohen said he believed
more discussions would be productive.

Until Cohen acts, the Navy apparently will continue its
moratorium on live-fire training on the island.

On Vieques, activists reacted swiftly to news of the panel's
recommendation, which includes steps to immediately reduce the
amount of training on Vieques and improve safety for the island's
9,300 residents. The report also recommended the return of some
Navy land on Vieques to Puerto Rico, including an ammunition
storage area and 110 acres to be used for a runway extension at the
Vieques commercial airport. The Navy owns about two-thirds of the
island.

"I think this is a way to give the Navy time to find allies,"
said Carlos Ventura, president of the Fishermen's Association of
Southern Vieques, which has set up a protest camp on the bombing
range at the eastern tip of the island.

"For us, it is unacceptable that the Navy start exercises
again," Ventura said. "We are going to stay there and continue
our civil disobedience. They will have to arrest us, and when that
happens there will be many more people who will come out and join
us."

Puerto Ricans raise a host of environmental, health and other
objections to the practice bombing.

Sila Calderon, San Juan mayor and front-runner in the 2000
gubernatorial race, said, "The Puerto Rican people have to remain
unequivocally firm that we do not want military exercises to begin
again in Vieques."

Live-firing training, including air-to-ground bombing, naval
gunfire and artillery, ceased after the April 19 fatality. Military
leaders say the halt to training is chipping away at the combat
readiness of naval forces who deploy from the East Coast, including
aircraft carrier battle groups and Marine units.

"The future of Vieques Island as a training facility must
transcend the emotion of the April 19th tragedy," Adm. Jay
Johnson, the chief of naval operations, said in a written statement
Monday.

Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said he was pleased the
presidential panel agreed with the Navy's view that there is no
viable short-term alternative to Vieques as a combined arms
training facility.

"I urge the people of Puerto Rico -- some 6,000 of whose
residents serve in the Navy and Marine Corps -- to accept this
judgment," Danzig said. He said he accepts the panel's
recommendation that the Navy place a higher priority on improving
its relationship with the Puerto Rican people. To that end, Danzig
said he was authorizing the assignment of a two-star admiral to
Puerto Rico with the specific task of building a better
relationship with Puerto Rico and with Vieques.

Adding to the seriousness of the dispute is a behind-the-scenes
concern in the Pentagon that if the Puerto Ricans succeed in
ousting the Navy from Vieques, they will indirectly energize
similar efforts by activists opposed to the military's training
presence elsewhere in America and around the world.

The Marine Corps, for example, has battled opposition to its
training in Okinawa for years. Anti-military sentiment erupted in
Italy last year when a Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler aircraft severed
a ski lift cable in the Italian Alps, killing 20 people, while on a
training run from Aviano Air Base.

The presidential panel is headed by Francis Rush of the Defense
Department's Force Management Policy Office. Other panel members
are former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a former chairman of the House
Foreign Relations Committee; retired Marine Corps Gen. Richard
Neal; and retired Navy Vice Adm. Diego Hernandez, a former
commander of the Navy's Third Fleet.

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