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Vieques voters say no to Navy bombing

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VIEQUES, Puerto Rico — Residents of Vieques voted overwhelmingly for the U.S. Navy to immediately stop bombing on this Puerto Rican island. The referendum is nonbinding, but the Puerto Rican government hopes it will influence Washington.

Sixty-eight percent of voters supported an end to the bombing and the Navy's withdrawal from the island that is home to its prized Atlantic range. About 30 percent voted for the Navy to stay and resume using live munitions, according to the electoral commission.

President Bush's plan to pull the Navy out of Vieques in 2003 and allow training with inert bombs to continue in the interim mustered less than 2 percent — 81 votes.

Islanders celebrated what they called "a victory for peace in Vieques" with whoops of joy, blaring car horns and the waving of Puerto Rican and Vieques flags.

Puerto Rico Gov. Sila M. Calderon has said the results have no legal standing but do carry "moral force" that she hopes will influence the U.S. government.

But after the results were announced, the Navy said it would continue its training, due to resume on Vieques on Wednesday, and keep looking for an alternative for when it leaves the island in 2003.

"The outcome of this referendum, organized by Gov. Sila Calderon, will have no impact on the Navy or our focus," said Lt. Cmdr. Kate Mueller, a Washington-based Navy spokeswoman.

Dozens of people lined up outside polling stations that opened at 8 a.m., and 75 percent of the 5,900 registered voters had cast ballots within four hours, the electoral commission said.

Anti-Navy activists say the bombing has damaged the environment and the health of islanders, who say they have higher-than-normal cancer and infant mortality rates. The Navy denies causing health problems.

Supporters of the bombing warn that an anti-Navy vote could imperil relations with Washington and jeopardize $14 billion in annual federal aid.

Calderon's referendum was called to give islanders the option of asking for an immediate stop to the bombing that began six decades ago. A federal referendum scheduled for November only allows them to choose between the Bush plan and the Navy remaining indefinitely and resuming live bombing.

"From the time I was old enough to know what they were doing to my island I wanted them to leave," said Candido L. Felix, a carpenter, handyman and mechanic born in 1940, the year the Navy came to Vieques and appropriated two-thirds of the 18-mile-long island.

Felix blamed the Navy exercises for his poverty, Vieques' undeveloped fishing and tourism industries and the resulting split in families whose young members go to the mainland to find work.

"We want peace for Vieques and that means the Navy has to go," said Geraldo Vegerano, a construction worker who has to commute to neighboring Culebra island to work.

Decades of simmering resentment over the Navy's presence exploded in anger and protests after civilian guard David Sanes was killed in 1999 by two off-target bombs on the prized range.

On Sunday, not all of the Sanes' family voted to stop the bombing.

"People are afraid to come out here," Maria Sanes, a cousin of the victim, told the pro-Navy rally. "But many of them are going to vote for" the Navy to stay, she said.

The Navy says the Atlantic bombing range, which takes up one-tenth of the island on the eastern tip and is 10 miles from the biggest town, provides essential training that saves lives in combat.

Efforts to find an alternative have produced proposals for a patchwork of different sites for different types of training on the mainland all with one big drawback: nobody wants bombs dropping in their backyard.

Two weeks ago the Navy announced a program of compensation that would pay fishermen $100 for each day that bombing exercises prevent them working, and grants of up to $25,000 to start small businesses.

Many say that's too little, too late.

"If they gave me $100,000, I wouldn't take it," Felix said. "All these years they never gave us anything but problems. Now they want to give us money? It's like trying to buy us."