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"Not One More Bomb" - Rossello

by Tamara Lytle

October 20, 1999
Copyright © 1999 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- Puerto Rico's Gov. Pedro Rossello faced off against Republican senators in a heated confrontation Tuesday, declaring "not one" more bomb should fall on the island of Vieques.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he will push to reopen the bombing within weeks. Otherwise, he said, a Naval battle group will have to sail for the Mediterranean in February without enough training. That could endanger lives of the troops in the Eisenhower Battle Group, said Warner, his position strongly backed by the Navy.

The Eisenhower training imposes a deadline of sorts on the long-simmering issue of whether live ammunition should be allowed again on the small island of Vieques off Puerto Rico. Training on Vieques has been suspended since the April death of a civilian security guard who was hit by an errant bomb.

Restarting bombing as early as Dec. 1 -- as the Navy would like -- would create a clash between the military and the Puerto Rican citizens now camped out on the bombing range in a protest that was compared Tuesday to the Boston Tea Party. They, like the governor and almost everyone on the island, want the live fire exercises to end immediately.

But on Tuesday, Warner, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and other Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee made it clear they will exert pressure for renewed bombing.

A presidential panel recommended Monday that the Navy be evicted from Vieques after five years, saying the service has fallen short in protecting the environment, developing the economy and communicating with the people in Vieques. The bombing range and a depot take up two-thirds of the island, with 9,000 civilians residents sandwiched in between.

But the panel also proposed allowing bombing to resume because of the Navy's argument that training there is crucial to military readiness and can't be replaced easily.

The panel's decision is now on the desk of Defense Secretary William Cohen, who is trying to work out a compromise between the Navy and the Puerto Ricans. President Clinton will make the final decision, although the White House has indicated it hopes a compromise will be reached.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday weighed in on the side of Puerto Ricans, a move that drew snipes from Republicans who have accused her of trying to woo Puerto Rican votes in her apparent New York Senate campaign.

Rossello said he would be happy to negotiate the terms of the Navy's departure and possibly agree to some training exercises on Vieques that don't include live ammunition.

But when Warner pressed him on allowing bombing, he said that was not negotiable.

"Not one aerial-dropped bomb? Not one ship to shore?" Warner asked.

"Not one," Rossello said, stressing nearly unanimous public opinion in the commonwealth. "Any bombing of Vieques is unacceptable to us."

Rossello and Inhofe also accused each other of playing politics. Rossello noted that Inhofe has threatened to pull the Navy out of the larger Roosevelt Roads base if the Vieques range were lost. Inhofe said Rossello has used his close political relationship with Vice President Al Gore to pressure the administration on the issue.

Inhofe called on Rossello to urge the end of the protests on the range, where citizens are camping out among unexploded ordinance to serve as human shields against the restart of bombing.

"Someone is going to die doing that," Inhofe said. "My advice is to say something discouraging about that trespassing or that blood will be on your hands."

Rossello countered that someone already had died -- security guard David Sanes Rodriguez. If bombing restarts and someone else is hurt, that blood will "be on your hands," Rossello countered.

Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said any decision on whether to prosecute the trespassers will be made with the Justice Department and other federal agencies.

"This will mean a civic confrontation with no parallel in our history," said Fernando Martin-Garcia, vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. The head of that party, Ruben Berrios, has led the civil disobedience efforts on the range.

Even though the presidential panel proposed a five-year deadline for the Navy to leave Vieques, panel members said Tuesday that the Navy would not necessarily be kicked out if it had not found an alternative site by then.

"I don't think we can make that judgment today," said Frank Rush, who led the panel.

"We thought this would get the Navy off its butt, quite frankly," said Ret. Vice Adm. Diego Hernandez, a panel member.

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