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Clinton in Pacific islands to renew US influence

Hillary Clinton flew Thursday to the remote Cook Islands to become the first US secretary of state at a South Pacific summit, hoping to renew influence in a region of growing Chinese clout.

Dozens of women sporting bikini tops and pink and blue headdresses joined bare-chested men in a rousing airport welcome, dancing energetically to drums and chanting songs as a beaming Clinton walked down to the asphalt.

Clinton will hold talks Friday as the most senior US official ever to take part in the 15-nation Pacific Island Forum, in a pointed sign of Washington's desire to re-engage in a region it has often overlooked in recent decades.

President Barack Obama's administration has vowed to put a top priority on Asia, hoping to shape the future of a fast-growing continent marked by China's rise, and officials said that the Pacific was a vital element.

"Sometimes when we talk about the Asia Pacific, the 'A' is capital and 'P' is small. And our attempt here is to underscore that we have very strong, enduring, strategic, moral, political, humanitarian interests across the region," a senior State Department official said.

The official said that Clinton would announce aid initiatives during her stay. China has won friends by pledging more than $600 million in low-interest and mostly strings-free loans to the South Pacific since 2005, according to an estimate by Australia's Lowy Institute.

Despite a broad desire for US engagement, Pacific nations also have concerns. The Pacific Island Forum (PIF) issued a communique Thursday saying that the United States, which tested 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands from 1946-1958, had a "special responsibility" on the issue.

The communique, endorsed by the forum's leaders, said radioactive contaminants were still present in the Marshalls and Washington should "live up to its full obligations" to remove them and compensate affected populations.

"(There is) a special responsibility by the United States of America towards the people of the Marshall Islands, who have been and continue to be, adversely affected as a direct result of nuclear weapons tests," it said.

The PIF leaders also welcomed moves to restore democracy in Fiji, which was suspended from the grouping in 2009 in the wake of a military coup three years earlier.

But New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said that they decided against lifting the suspension until they were confident the military regime would not renege on a pledge to hold elections in 2014, as it did in 2009.

"One of the reasons not to reinstate is because of serious questions such as what happens to the military and whether they are sent back to the barracks," he told reporters.

The communique also called for action on climate change, which threatens many of the low-lying island states, and marine conservation.

Host nation the Cook Islands announced the creation of the world's largest marine park, a vast swathe of ocean almost twice the size of France, at the summit's opening ceremony on Tuesday.

The PIF leaders also expressed condolences to Australia over the loss of five troops killed this week in Afghanistan -- the Australian military's deadliest day since the war in Vietnam.

The deaths forced Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to cut short her trip to the summit and return to Canberra.

They agreed that next year's forum will be held in the Marshall Islands, which is set to place more pressure on the United States over its nuclear legacy.

A UN fact-finding mission to the northern Pacific nation found in March that test-affected islanders "feel like nomads in their own country" and had suffered long-term health problems from the Cold War-era nuclear programme.

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