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By Giff Johnson

EBEYE, Marshall Islands (May 25, 2001 – Marshall Islands Journal)---Kwajalein leaders are calling it historic and "ice-breaking." U.S. Ambassador Mike Senko called it "important." They are both talking about an unprecedented meeting held recently on Ebeye involving representatives of the four "domains" that are headed by different iroij and the U.S. ambassador.

For four hours at Mon La-Mike on Ebeye, about 50 landowners exchanged with Senko – the first time that a U.S. ambassador has met with a group representing all the key traditional leaders at the Kwajalein missile range.

Kwajalein landowners have been calling for increased compensation and extending the lease period beyond the current additional 15 years. They have also repeatedly said they want to negotiate directly with the U.S.

But U.S. officials have repeatedly responded that the U.S. will only negotiate with the RMI government.

Senko made it clear to the Journal that it was not a negotiating session. He said, however, that it was part of his "ongoing commitment to engage with" people throughout the Marshall Islands on key issues.

He also said that Kwajalein missile range lease payments "are not projected to be part of the re-negotiation" of the Compact’s financial provisions.

Senko also indicated that the Kwajalein missile range was of great importance to the U.S. and that the questions of Kwajalein leaders needed to be addressed directly and openly, which is why he agreed to meet with the landowners when they requested the consultation.

But, he said that he told the landowners in reply to their concerns that they needed to work with the Marshall Islands government on any proposals concerning increasing the term or the financial aspects of lease arrangements to be put to the U.S. government.

One landowner said that Kwajalein leadership was under the impression that Kwajalein was a "done deal," meaning that discussion of Kwajalein concerns was simply not a possibility. Coming out of the consultation with Senko, they realized that this is not the case, but rather that issues about Kwajalein need to be endorsed by the RMI government and communicated formally to the U.S. to put them on the agenda of both governments.

The four hour meeting included such Kwajalein leaders as Iroij Mike Kabua, Iroij/Senator Christopher Loeak and his brother Botlang Loeak, who is RMI’s liaison to Kwajalein, Rod Nakamura, Lanny Kabua, and Senator Sato Maie, Justin deBrum, Relong Lemari and Abacca Anjain-Maddison.

"It was an historic occasion for the people of Kwajalein Atoll to engage in a direct dialogue with the U.S. government in regards to usage of their lands within the atoll," said the landowner speaking about the meeting.

In response to two paramount questions for Kwajalein landowners -- will the U.S. negotiate directly with the landowners and does the U.S. have any objection to Kwajalein landowners taking part in the negotiations -- Senko said these issues must be taken up by the RMI government, according to the landowner.

On Kwajalein leaders’ interest in extending the term of the lease beyond 15 years, Senko said that the fact that the lease expires in 2016 doesn’t mean that the U.S. will leave after this period, according to the landowner.

"The meeting was a real morale booster for Kwajalein landowners," he said. Previously, "our understanding was that both the RMI and the U.S. governments were saying Kwajalein was a ‘done deal.’

"But what Senko said is that it is up to the government to bring up issues about Kwajalein."

This landowner said that the landowners understand that the RMI government has the "last say" on the issue, and that they need to get together with the government to make their case about Kwajalein issues that need to be put to the U.S. government.

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail:  Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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