Washington The Bush administration suspended Navy bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques Thursday while negotiators pursue a permanent solution to the bitter dispute over U.S. military use of the island.
The decision, revealed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is a concession to the new Puerto Rican government, which wants the Navy to withdraw entirely from the training range it has used on Vieques for decades.
The Navy has resisted, saying Vieques is vital to training for its Atlantic fleet.
Rumsfeld discussed the matter with Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderon on Tuesday.
On Vieques, the decision was cheered by opponents of the Navy's presence.
"This triumph is a momentary triumph and not an eternal victory," anti-Navy activist Ismael Guadalupe said.
"We need to redouble our efforts now to try to transform this suspension into a halt to Navy bombing on the island forever."
"What we want is the Navy to leave and give us back our land," he said.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., a virulent critic of the Navy for persisting in its use of the range, greeted Rumsfeld's announcement with cautious optimism but urged the Pentagon to stay off the island forever.
"We appreciate what's happening," Serrano said, "but we hope that this becomes a permanent cease-fire on the entire island and that we can then begin the long road to helping the people of Vieques get their lives together again."
Navy Capt. Mike Brady, a spokesman at U.S. Atlantic Fleet headquarters at Norfolk, Va., said the decision to suspend training on Vieques affects the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier battle group and a Marine Corps amphibious ready group led by the USS Kearsarge.
It is not a permanent halt to training on Vieques, although that could be the eventual outcome.
"The battle group and the amphibious ready group are expected to receive an adequate level of training to deploy" as scheduled in late April, Brady said.
They will use the waters off Puerto Rico to do other training, but they will not be able to use Vieques for practice bombing and naval gunfire training.
In seeking to retain the Vieques training range, the Navy has argued that it is the only means of providing the training to ensure that battle groups begin their overseas deployments fully ready for combat.