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Pentagon Hopes 'Cooling Off' Period Will Smooth Over Vieques Dispute

by Tom Raum

December 7, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON (AP) - Both sides need a "cooling off" period to resolve the U.S. Navy's dispute with Puerto Rico over whether bombing practice should resume on the outlying island of Vieques, a Defense Department spokesman suggested Tuesday.

"I think there's room for dialogue here," said the spokesman, Kenneth Bacon.

Bacon said that an envoy, Rear Adm. Kevin Green, would be in Puerto Rico later this week to begin talks with local citizens and officials in an effort to sell them on the administration's plan to resume bombing practice next spring at sharply reduced levels and without live ammunition. (N.B. The visit was postponed on Thursday, December 10th).

"Obviously, tempers are hot now and we're hoping that there can be a time for cooling off as people review terms of this package," Bacon said.

He declined to say whether the administration would move ahead if objections from Puerto Ricans remain as strong as they are now.

"I think I won't speculate on what's going to happen," Bacon said. "I will assume that everybody will be able to sit down and agree to the package that has been presented and we can begin working under terms of that package."

President Bill Clinton last Friday extended the present moratorium on Navy bombing until next spring. Then, however, his plan calls for a scaled-back resumption of training using inert bombs, with all training to be phased out within five years.

Puerto Rico would get $40 million as an incentive under the plan.

But Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello has said it is unacceptable because it does not go far enough in closing down the bombing range, which has been used by the Navy since the end of World War II.

The bombing has always drawn opposition from Puerto Rican leaders and citizens. But the controversy boiled over after a civilian security guard was killed by an errant bomb in April.

Pentagon officials have said that Clinton's decision will mean the next aircraft carrier battle group to deploy abroad from the East Coast, led by the USS Eisenhower and the USS Wasp, will leave their home station of Norfolk, Virginia in February in a reduced state of combat readiness.

The next battle group, led by the USS George Washington, "would train toward the end of March, so there's some time to continue discussions," Bacon said.

"We're going to be sitting down with the Puerto Ricans, both government officials and citizens' groups over the next few months and talking to them about what the package means for them and what it means for the Navy," Bacon said.

As to whether the administration might modify or try to sweeten the plan, Bacon said, "I think the package is as far as we can go at this stage."

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