- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 10 (UPI) — The U.S. Navy will cease training on the Vieques, Puerto Rico, training range by May and will instead step up activities at existing U.S.-based ranges.

The announcement Friday signals the end to nearly four years of controversy plaguing the Navy about its use of the island.

Navy Secretary Gordon England certified in a letter to Congress that Vieques will be dropped from training, as planned.

The service will spend more than $400 million at other ranges around the country over the next few years. According to the service, the Navy and Marine Corps will increase its use of Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.; Pine Castle AFB, Fla.; Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., and Camp LeJeune, N.C., to offset the loss of Vieques. The Navy will also make use of new shipboard simulators to train sailors and Marines in combined arms attacks and beach assaults.

In the meantime, the Navy's Theodore Roosevelt carrier battle group plans to begin a new 30-day training exercise on and near Vieques around Jan. 13, the Navy said.

Vieques has been the crown jewel of the Navy's Atlantic fleet training ranges for the past 50 years — the only place it could combine thousands of Marines, aircraft carriers, aircraft and submarines to conduct realistic exercises with live weapons that involved amphibious landings.

In 1999, however, a bomb went astray during a training mission, killing a Puerto Rican guard at an observation post about a mile from the range and wounded four others.

Since then, the Navy has been proscribed from using live weapons and its training has been interrupted by massive protests on the island.

The Navy tried without success to convince Puerto Rico to accept money and land in exchange for continued use of the island.

Vieques is home to more than 9,000 civilians. Roughly two-thirds of the island has been used for military training since the 1940s.

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