Navy Suspends Use of Vieques Site

In a concession to Puerto Rico, the Navy has canceled plans to use a disputed bombing range on the island of Vieques during training this month by an aircraft carrier battle group.

The decision was made in light of discussions between the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the government of Puerto Rico on a permanent solution to the dispute, said Capt. Mike Brady, a spokesman at U.S. Atlantic Fleet headquarters at Norfolk, Va.

Brady said the decision affects training for the USS Enterprise battle group and a Marine Corps amphibious ready group led by the USS Kearsarge.

It is not a permanent halt to training on Vieques, although that is what Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderon wants.

Retaining Vieques Training Range

"The battle group and the amphibious ready group are expected to receive an adequate level of training to deploy" as scheduled in late April, Brady said. They will use the waters off Puerto Rico to do other training, but they will not be able to use Vieques for practice bombing and naval gunfire training.

In seeking to retain the Vieques training range, the Navy has argued that it is the only means of providing the training to ensure that battle groups begin their overseas deployments fully ready for combat.

On Tuesday, Calderon met with Rumsfeld in his Pentagon office. She told reporters later that she asked him to delay Navy training exercises on Vieques until he reviews a study suggesting noise from the bombing has caused heart disease among residents.

The Navy calls Vieques the "crown jewel" of its Atlantic training sites, saying exercises there are vital to national defense because they uniquely combine air, sea and land maneuvers that cannot be done elsewhere.

Protests After Civilian Killed

The Navy owns two-thirds of Vieques and its bombing range covers 900 acres — under 3 percent of the island. It used live bombs until two went astray in a 1999 practice and killed a civilian guard on the bombing range.

Bombing was halted and protesters occupied the range for more than a year before the Navy swept them out in May. Under an agreement reached in January 2000 between then-President Clinton and then-Gov. Pedro Rossello, training with inert bombs instead of live ones resumed and Vieques' 9,400 resident were to decide in a referendum next November whether the Navy should stay or leave. The agreement, which Calderon considers invalid, says that if islanders vote to expel the Navy, it would have to leave by May 2003.