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LISBON, Jan 15 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday that the Pentagon remains committed the Lajes Air Base in Portugal's Azores despite deciding to cut personnel and operations there.
Panetta, speaking at a news conference in Lisbon with Portuguese counterpart, Defense Minister Jose Aguiar-Brancoin, also acknowledged that the cutbacks at one of the island's largest employers would be harmful to the area's economy.
"Let me make clear that the United States military is committed to Lajes Air Base," he said. "This is an important air base for us, it has some important airlift capabilities. It will remain a vital part of our global forward posture."
The cuts are expected to save the United States $350 million over 10 years and Panetta, on the first leg of a trip to Europe, outlined U.S. plans to try to help offset the damage.
He said the United States had agreed to delay the transition to reduced service and personnel levels until October 2014. He said the Pentagon would also maintain round-the-clock fire and emergency services at the base, and was committed to hiring three local people for every American stationed there.
He said a group of business executives who work with the Pentagon would soon visit the Azores to look at possibilities for business development in the islands.
The base employs some 650 U.S. military and civilian defence personnel, many of whom live on the island with their families.
The U.S. Defense Department is currently implementing $487 billion in cuts to projected spending over the next decade, a move agreed by Congress and President Barack Obama as part of efforts to cut Washington's huge budget deficits.
The Pentagon is facing an additional $500 billion in across the board cuts beginning in March unless Congress and the White House agree to a compromise that would avert the cost reduction (Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Louise Ireland)