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Navy intends to leave Vieques

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - The Navy intends to halt training on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by May 2003, reversing its long-running insistence that no other locale was suitable for battle simulations, defense officials said last night.

Navy Secretary Gordon England plans to set up a commission as early as today to search for alternatives.

A defense official cautioned that the Navy would leave only if acceptable alternatives can be found. But the Navy believes it will find those alternatives, which could range from another location for live-fire training, or simulation.

"The secretary will challenge the panel to come up with alternatives. Vieques will not be part of the Navy's long-term plans," one defense official said.

The decision was made at a White House meeting yesterday that included President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, who has frequently voiced concerns that the mounting protests against the Navy operations and the arrest of the protesters seeking to block the exercises was costing Bush vital support among Hispanics. Also in attendance was England, who told lawmakers last night that he will recommend that the Navy discontinue use of the range by 2003, officials said.

The Pentagon reportedly began seriously studying ways to leave Vieques after Bush, in an interview broadcast in early May by Spanish-language network Univision, said the United States needed to find another base for its Atlantic live-fire training.

As a result, the defense official said, "I think that marker was set down a while ago."

Capt. Kevin Wensing, a spokesman for England, said, "We have looked for other options. We are continuing to look for other options."

Another exercise involving the dropping of inert bombs is scheduled to begin Monday, and one senior administration official said yesterday that "we wanted to get the word out quickly" that the administration would terminate the exercises, though not as quickly as Puerto Rican officials have demanded.

In April, about 180 protesters, including four prominent New York politicians, were arrested for disrupting the exercises, and more arrests seem likely in coming days.

The decision, which was first forecast on evening news reports, appears intended to short-circuit Puerto Rican plans to hold a referendum next month on the Navy's operations on the island, which contains 33,000 acres and has about 9,300 residents.

While the referendum would have no legal effect on the Navy, Gov. Sila Calderon, until now a harsh critic of the military's refusal to end the exercises, has used it to build political pressure on the Bush administration - a tactic that seems to have worked. She signed a bill into law this week authorizing the July 29 referendum, though it is unclear whether it will go ahead.

"The referendum really becomes a moot issue," the defense official said.

Privately, Navy officials said they were planning to spend millions of dollars in Vieques to persuade the residents to allow them to continue live-fire exercises on the island. But it became clear that continuing to be an unwelcome presence on the island would carry too high a political price for Bush and other lawmakers.

The Rev. Al Sharpton is serving a 90-day prison sentence for protesting on the island, while three other politicians received 40-day sentences: New York Assemblyman Jose Rivera, City Councilman Adolfo Carrion Jr. and Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic Party chairman.

In April, a federal judge refused to block naval bombing on Vieques, saying there was insufficient evidence that the exercises would irreparably harm residents of the island. At least one study has shown a high incidence of heart problems among the fishermen and children living on the island, chiefly an unusual disorder known as vibroacoustic disease. It is linked to loud noises such as those from jet engines or explosions.

But in the ruling, Judge Gladys Kessler said the Navy had made "an implied promise" not to resume the bombing until completion of studies into possible links between noise and heart ailments among island residents. She also said that the bombing would violate a new Puerto Rican law against noise pollution, passed in response to the exercises.

Some Republican senators might be angry at Puerto Ricans for forcing the closure of the training site, which was used to plan Pacific assaults during World War II. They might retaliate by trying to close Roosevelt Roads, a large Naval base in Puerto Rico that provides jobs and revenue.

But critics of the Navy's activities said last night that they will continue their crusade until the Navy agrees to halt all maneuvers at Vieques immediately.

"If they're saying, 'We will continue bombing till 2003,' that would be unacceptable," said Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a New York Democrat who was born in Puerto Rico.

Said Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, another opponent of the bombing, "It's like me telling you that I'm going to stop beating you in the head with a hammer in two years."

He called the two-year deadline a "very embarrassing thing" for Calderon, who has campaigned heavily on a Navy pullout.

Calderon released the following statement in Spanish last night: "The information being disseminated this afternoon over the military maneuvers in Vieques is not official," she said. The governor's office, she added, "should not make any statements about it for the moment."

Some Republican senators might be angry at Puerto Ricans for forcing the closure of the training site, which was used to plan Pacific assaults during World War II. They might retaliate by trying to close Roosevelt Roads, a large Naval base in Puerto Rico that provides jobs and revenue.

The official said that after May 2003, the Navy would return the Vieques range to the Department of Interior, which would then determine how to clean up or otherwise deal with the land, which is uninhabitable because it is littered with shrapnel and unexploded shells.

The Navy has conducted exercises on the eastern tip of the Puerto Rican island for more than 50 years. Military officials have maintained that live-fire training at Vieques, including aerial bombing and ship-to-shore shelling, is the only way to verify that its aircraft and ships are combat-ready.

But after off-target bombs killed a civilian guard on the range in 1999, other locales have been used for live-fire training, with the Navy and Marines using a bombing range in the Florida panhandle and Marines storming the shores of North Carolina.

Many in the Pentagon, already unhappy with the Bush administration's failure thus far to significantly increase the defense budget, are likely to complain that the Vieques decision was made for political reasons to the detriment of combat readiness. The Pentagon has frequently called the Vieques range, which is also used by the Marine Corps, "the best in the Atlantic."

But England, a longtime executive in the defense industry, came into his job with a clear mandate to solve the problem.

A senior White House official said yesterday that England will "get outside experts, including some retired officers, to determine alternative sites that the Navy can use."

New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

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