VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) — Six U.S. legislators toured the Puerto Rican island of Vieques on Sunday to see for themselves the Navy bombing range at the center of a dispute between Washington and the U.S. territory.
The legislators, all Democrats, landed in a helicopter at the observation post overlooking the range. Navy officers pointed out where planes make their bombing runs and where some protesters have been detained.
Officers also showed members of Congress where civilian security guard David Sanes was killed by errant bombs in 1999, an accident that touched off mass protests among Puerto Ricans frustrated with the Navys six decades of exercises.
All of us understand military preparedness, training, is key, said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. Id like to see them be able to train and not be in conflict with the people of Vieques.
Navy Rear Adm. Kevin Green, who accompanied the legislators, said the 1999 accident is an argument for more training. Navy officials say they have installed a new radar system and established new procedures to prevent such mistakes in the future.
President Bush has called for the Navy to leave Vieques in 2003, but many Puerto Ricans — including Gov. Sila Calderon — say the bombing should stop immediately. Bombing opponents say the exercises pose a health risk, which the Navy denies.
Representatives from New York, California, Ohio and Texas visited on Sunday along with the nonvoting Congressional delegates from Puerto Rico and the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands.
Jackson Lee said the first order of business should be finding a replacement for Vieques, preferably in an uninhabited area. Vieques, just east of the main island of Puerto Rico, has 9,100 residents.
Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York said the bombing should stop immediately and expressed concern about ammunition that has fallen in the water. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California said the bombing shouldnt resume at least until the government finishes an evaluation of health effects on residents.
Before returning to Puerto Rico, the legislators also met with three dozen opponents of Navy bombing at a protest camp just outside Navy land.
The message of our visit is that Congress is listening to you, Pelosi told them.
The legislators urged Vieques residents to vote in a nonbinding referendum that the Puerto Rican government is holding on July 29 to gauge if and when they want the Navy to leave.
Its important the people be able to determine what happens on their island, said Donna Christian-Christensen, the Virgin Islands delegate to Congress.
The group also toured the Navys Camp Garcia and a building that serves as a holding area for detained protesters. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat arrested during April protests, has complained the building was roofless and dirty. He was not among those visiting on Sunday.
I would like us to have a better holding area, Jackson Lee said.
On Saturday, some legislators visited protesters jailed for trespassing on Navy land, including environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of the late president.
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio said Kennedy, serving a 30-day jail sentence in suburban San Juan, told her his wife had a baby while he was in the detention center.
He said his wife was very happy and he wished hed had a chance to be there, Tubbs Jones said.
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