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Navy promises study for alternative to Puerto Rican bomb site

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Despite Navy objections, members of a
presidential panel said today that the service should look harder
for an alternative to its main Atlantic bombing range on the Puerto
Rican island of Vieques.

At the same time, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services
Committee said he regretted that the island had become so
politicized. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., cited Hillary Rodham
Clinton's comments calling for an immediate and permanent end to
the use of the island as a target range.

Noting that many Americans live close to military practice
ranges, Warner said: "I wonder what the first lady would have to
say about the rest of the portions of the United States of America
that do accept this as their contribution towards national
security."

Francis Rush, the chairman of the presidential panel, defended
the group's conclusion that bombing should be allowed to resume on
the island, but at a reduced level -- and that the range should be
closed entirely within five years.

At the same time, Rush conceded that as of now "there are no
potential sites" that appear to meet the Navy's requirements.

The Navy's five-decade long use of the island for live bombing
practice came under new political scrutiny after a security guard
was killed and four others injured April 19 when an F-18 fighter
accidentally dropped two 500-pound bombs on the wrong target.

"It has continued to be bombs away, day after day," Puerto
Rican Gov. Pedro Rosselo told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"The death of a young Vieques resident last April brought the
situation to a point of no return."

He accused the Navy of being "supremely callous, condescending
and ultimately inhumane" in its conduct on the small island of
9,000 people.

The Navy has said it will search anew for alternatives, but that
for the next five years the range is irreplaceable.

"The Vieques Training Range ... is the best, and for several
important activities the only suitable training site for naval
forces deploying from the East Coast of the United States," Navy
Secretary Richard Danzig said in prepared testimony.

Danzig insisted that the range had a good safety record. "The
very regrettable death of a Navy employee on the range six months
ago does not demonstrate otherwise," Danzig said. "This is the
only civilian death on the range in more than 55 years of
training."

Retired Marine Gen. Richard Neal, a member of the presidential
panel, said the Navy had done "a lousy job of communication" with
residents of the Vieques and in dealing with Puerto Rico in
general.

"We thought this (report) would get the Navy off its butt,
quite frankly," Neal said.

The Clinton administration imposed a temporary moratorium on
live-fire training at Vieques as it searches for middle ground in
the controversy.

The U.S. territory's government is adamant that the Navy abandon
the range, but the Navy says U.S. national security is at stake.

The presidential panel issued its report Monday.

Puerto Ricans raise a host of environmental, health and other
objections to bombing on Vieques, a 20-mile-long island off the
eastern end of Puerto Rico. The island's approximately 9,300 people
are separated from the bombing range at its eastern tip by a buffer
zone of about 10 miles.

The panel also faulted the Navy for failing to meet earlier
commitments to boost Vieques' economic development. It accused the
Navy of being insensitive to local complaints about noise and other
inconveniences, which have been a sore point among Puerto Ricans
for years.

After release of the presidential panel's report, Defense
Secretary William Cohen said he would withhold his recommendation
to President Clinton until the panel held more discussions on a
Vieques solution. Until Cohen acts, the Navy apparently will
continue its moratorium on live-fire training on the island.

The panel's report drew immediate protests in Puerto Rico, where
sentiment against the Navy has been growing since a civilian
security guard was killed in an April bombing accident. Protesters
have camped out on the bombing range since then to prevent the Navy
from using the range.

"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 range.

"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."

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