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Bush says plan to destroy chemical weapons is safe

President Bush told the leaders of 11 Pacific island nations Saturday that a U.S. plan to destroy part of its deadly chemical weapons arsenal on a tiny Pacific atoll would be handled safely and posed no threat to the environment. "I ask for your understanding and support as we work to eliminate completely a menace which threatens all nations," Bush said at the start here of the first-ever Pacific Summit.

"We will do this only under extremely stringent environmental controls and protections," Bush told the leaders, adding that only the weapons now being stored on the atoll would be destroyed there.

"Once that destruction is completed, we have no plans to use Johnston Atoll for any other chemical munitions purpose, or as a hazardous waste disposal site," the president said.

The Pacific leaders were seeking assurances from Bush that the region would not become the world's chemical weapons dumping ground.

Plans to use a facility on Johnston Atoll some 720 miles southwest of Honolulu to destroy more than 6 percent of the U.S. stockpile of nerve gas weapons _ including some 100,000 weapons being shipped there from Germany _ has become a major regional concern.

As Bush arrived at the summit site on the University of Hawaii campus here, he was greeted by about 100 demonstrators chanting slogans and protesting U.S. environmental policy in the Pacific region.

"Don't make our Pacific your cesspool," said a large sign carried by one of the demonstrators.

Bush arrived in Hawaii late Friday on the second day of a five-day swing through the Western United States that is devoted principally to campaigning for Republican candidates in the Nov. 6 elections.

The Pacific Summit was a break for Bush from the campaign and from the budget crisis that has paralyzed Washington in recent weeks.

Thirteen Pacific nations were invited to the summit but Niue and Vanuatu did not send delegations.

Attending were delegations from Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Fiji, Western Samoa, Papua, New Guinea, the Cook Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga and the Solomon Islands.

In his opening remarks, Bush praised the island leaders for their support in the Persian Gulf crisis.

The region's economy has been hit hard by rising oil prices due to the trade ban imposed by the United Nations on Iraq following its Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.

To help foster economic development in the region, Bush said the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp. would establish an Asian-Pacific Growth Fund, similar to existing funds for Eastern Europe and Africa, providing $200-million in venture capital.