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Plan Lets Navy Train On Vieques With Pledge To Quit

December 1, 1999
Copyright © 1999 AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- Even as the first ships of a carrier battle group steamed toward controversial training exercises, President Clinton on Tuesday worked out the broad terms of an agreement to allow the Navy to resume use of its Puerto Rican firing range on a temporary and limited basis, senior officials said. Although talks are still under way and the consensus is fragile, Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno also discussed the possibility of sending FBI agents to remove protesters who are occupying the firing range on the small island of Vieques, officials said.

Even if the White House can satisfy Gov. Pedro Rossello and other top Puerto Rican leaders, dozens or even hundreds of demonstrators may engage in civil disobedience to publicize their cause, according to participants in the anti-Navy protest.

To resolve the impasse it acknowledges helping to create, the Navy has agreed to end all exercises on the 900-acre firing range by a specific date in the next three to five years, the officials said. But differences remain over whether live ammunition or only nonexplosive "inert" ordnance can be used in the interim, particularly during training exercises for the battle group led by the USS Eisenhower, which are scheduled to begin next week, officials said. Exercises are set to begin next week.

The administration has been on the brink of announcing a deal at least twice in the past few days, only to pull back because of the Navy's insistence on live ammunition and Puerto Rican leaders' insistence on dummy bombs, the officials said.

Vieques has served as a major training ground for the Atlantic Fleet since 1941, and the Navy contends that the 52-square-mile island is the only place that Marines can practice amphibious landings while surface ships and aircraft provide support with live ordnance. Such training has been suspended since April 19, when two stray bombs killed a civilian security guard at an observation post on the fringe of the firing range.

That accident galvanized public opinion in Puerto Rico against use of the firing range.

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