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MAJURO, Marshall islands (May 18, 2001 - Marianas Variety/PINA Nius Online)---Marshall Islands landowners have hired a former U.S. senator to push their move for a new lease with higher payments from America's key central Pacific missile test range.

J. Bennett Johnston, Jr. who spent 24 years as a Democrat senator from Louisiana, spoke to a crowd of about 200 Kwajalein atoll landowners in Majuro. He was repeatedly interrupted with applause.

"This will be an uphill fight," he told the landowners of the effort to get the current lease changed. "But we will go to battle as if Kwajalein is our home and our land."

Johnston told the public meeting that during its tenure in the islands of the former Trust Territory, the U.S. did some things well and some things not so well. Kwajalein, he said, was in the second category.

Johnston said his job and that of his Washington-based government relations firm, was to get the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration to recognize:

Kwajalein, 4,200 miles southwest of California, is the focus of U.S. missile defense testing. It has seen a tripling in the number of missile tests since the Bush administration came into office.

Under a lease that runs until 2016, landowners receive about $13 million annually in rent. They believe that amount should be more than doubled.

In an interview after the public meeting, Johnston called Ebeye "America’s shame."

"They’ve had cholera and it looks like Bangladesh," he said. "It’s unacceptable."

But, he added, "This is not a trial to determine who’s guilty. The situation at Kwajalein is inequitable and unacceptable, no matter whose fault it is."

He said that the situation lends itself to "friendly persuasion" with U.S. officials.

Johnston said he is aiming to get the U.S. Department of Defense to "focus on its needs and come to some decisions about Kwajalein."

Johnston’s son Hunter, who is an attorney with his Washington-based firm, said that it’s in the U.S. government’s long-term interests to address the Kwajalein missile range lease now.

If the U.S. is planning to leave Kwajalein when the current lease expires in 2016, planning for that -- including transfer of assets -- needs to start now, not the year before the lease expires, he said.

Similarly, he said, if the U.S. wants Kwajalein for a longer term then negotiating that now makes sense. This is while negotiations on economic assistance to the Marshall Islands through a Compact of Free Association are in progress.

Given the Bush administration’s high priority on missile defense, it’s logical to conclude that it’s in the U.S. interest to maintain Kwajalein beyond 2016, he added.

Compact funding is separate from Kwajalein rent. It currently provides the Marshall Islands more than $45 million annually for 50,000 people. The current agreement expires next year

"It’s fundamentally unfair to negotiate (the Compact funding) without dealing with the Military Use and Operating Rights Agreement for Kwajalein," Hunter Johnston said.

Bennett Johnston said that they are taking on Kwajalein from the standpoint of doing what’s right for the people of Kwajalein and for the Department of Defense.

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