Protests force US to abandon base off Puerto Rico

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The White House has decided to end all training on Vieques because it is unwilling to pay the political cost of perpetual protests over its use of the island off Puerto Rico as a bombing range for the Navy.

The White HouseE has decided to end all training on Vieques because it is unwilling to pay the political cost of perpetual protests over its use of the island off Puerto Rico as a bombing range for the Navy.

The decision is a reversal for the American Navy, which has long insisted that the island of 33,000 acres, which has 9,000 residents, remains its only viable site for bombing and shelling practice in the Atlantic. The US military has been battering the range for the past six decades.

Pressure has been growing on Washington to find an alternative site since 1999, when a stray bomb killed a security guard on the range. Recent protests on the island led to the arrest of 180 people, including the Rev Al Sharpton, who is now in a New York prison.

Under the proposal, finalised at a meeting of senior White House aides on Wednesday, bombing will continue until May 2003, at which time the Navy will end its operations there entirely. Protesters reacted cautiously, demanding that the bombing be stopped now. Exercises are due to begin on Monday and protesters were still gathered yesterday outside the range's main gates.

President George Bush confirmed the policy switch at the European Union summit in Sweden. He said: "My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct these exercises. There has been some harm done in the past. Second, these people are our friends and neighbours and they don't want us there."

The new stance means a referendum planned in Puerto Rico on the issue for the end of next month has been overtaken. The people of Puerto Rico, which is an American territory but not a fully fledged state, were to be asked whether the US Navy should leave Vieques or be allowed to remain.

White House aides recently concluded there was almost no chance of averting a landslide victory for those demanding the ejection of the military and that it was time for Washington to withdraw.

The political calculation was made more compelling by the gathering anger over the issue among Hispanics in America. Mr Sharpton, who is on a hunger strike midway through a 90-day prison sentence for his part in the April protests, has been one of many leaders to stir Hispanic anger over Vieques. Emotions have run particularly high in New York, which has a huge Hispanic population. Three New York leaders of the movement to get the Navy out, including Roberto Ramirez, the chairman of the Bronx Democrat Party, issued a statement insisting that waiting another two years to end the bombing was "totally unacceptable". Mr Ramirez is among four New York politicians who received prison sentences for their part in the April protests.

The new Governor of Puerto Rico, Sila Calderon, has also come out firmly in favour of the Navy leaving Vieques in peace. She travelled to the island on Wednesday to express her solidarity with protesters.

The decision to abandon Vieques was endorsed by the military's civilian leaders at the Pentagon and, particularly, by the new Secretary of the Navy, Gordon England. It will enrage many uniformed officers, however, and was already causing dismay among conservative ranks on Capitol Hill.

The Navy owns about two- thirds of the island, leaving only a small middle section for its residents and a small but healthy tourist industry. It drops bombs, none of which has actually been live since the 1999 accident, on a much smaller area of about 900 acres. It also rents the range to foreign governments, including to the British Navy.

Opponents of the military presence have cited health problems on the island, which they have linked to the bombing. Among the ailments identified is vibro-acoustic disease, a heart problem.

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