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US, Japan agree to keep military base on Okinawa

Japan and the US announced Friday that they had agreed to maintain a US military base on the island of Okinawa, despite strong local opposition and a campaign pledge by Japan's PM Yukio Hatoyama (pictured) to remove it.


AFP - Japan and the United States agreed Friday to keep a US military base on the island of Okinawa despite strong local opposition, resolving a row that has badly strained ties between the allies.

Tokyo and Washington said in a joint statement that the Futenma marine airbase would be moved, as first agreed in 2006, from a city area to the coastal Henoko region of the southern island.

They announced the deal after a telephone conversation between Japan's centre-left Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who took power last year vowing "more equal" relations with the United States, and President Barack Obama.

"We were able to reach an agreement on the Futenma issue by the end of May," Hatoyama told reporters, referring to a self-imposed deadline on the issue that has badly eroded his domestic political support.

The White House said both leaders "expressed satisfaction with the progress made by the two sides in reaching an operationally viable and politically sustainable plan to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma."

The base has long angered locals because of aircraft noise, pollution, the risk of crashes and friction with American service personnel, especially after the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three US servicemen.

Hatoyama -- who in an August election ended Japan's half-century of conservative rule -- initially said he may scrap the 2006 pact and move the base off the island, but then failed to find an alternative location.

He caved in early this month when he said the base would stay on Okinawa, the reluctant hosts of a heavy US military presence since World War II, citing the need for a strong US military presence for regional security.

Both sides said that the 50-year-old US-Japan alliance "remains indispensable not only to the defence of Japan, but also to the peace, security and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region."

"Recent developments in the security environment of Northeast Asia reaffirmed the significance of the alliance," they said -- a reference to a multinational report that last week blamed North Korea for sinking a South Korean naval vessel in March, killing 46 sailors.

In the statement, both nations' foreign and defence ministers confirmed that they will return to the existing pact over the base relocation, reached in 2006 between past conservative administrations.

"Both sides confirmed the intention to locate the replacement facility at the Camp Schwab Henoko-saki area and adjacent waters," the statement said, adding that 8,000 Marines would in future move to the US territory of Guam.

A logistical study would be completed by late August, they said.

The premier's pacifist coalition partner the Social Democrats strongly oppose the move, citing anti-base sentiment on Okinawa, although they appeared to back away from threats to leave the government over the issue.

Susumu Inamine, the anti-base mayor of Nago city which includes the Henoko area, accused Hatoyama of "a betrayal of the Okinawan people" and vowed he would continue to refuse negotiations with Tokyo.

The festering base dispute has provoked mass anti-base rallies, both on Okinawa and other islands that the government has eyed as potential alternative base locations, and hammered Hatoyama's approval ratings.

With upper house elections slated for July, poll ratings for the Hatoyama's cabinet have plunged from over 70 percent last year to around 20 percent.

The statement acknowledged that the heavy US military presence on Okinawa has long angered many residents.

Both sides "recognised the importance of responding to the concerns of the people of Okinawa that they bear a disproportionate burden related to the presence of US forces," their statement said.

They also said that some military training may in future be shifted outside of Okinawa, possibly to the remote island of Tokunoshima, to Japan Self-Defense Force bases elsewhere in Japan, or to Guam.

Hatoyama was slated to hold a news conference in the afternoon.

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