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Governor of Japan's Okinawa backs US airbase accord

Wed Oct 14 23:36:01 EST 2009
Wed Oct 14 12:36:01 UTC 2009

TOKYO, Oct 14 AFP - The governor of Japan's Okinawa prefecture said a US military base could stay on the island, officials said on Wednesday -- the latest twist in a row weeks before President Barack Obama visits the country.

Japan's new centre-left government, which took power last month, has said it wants the air base moved off the island or even outside Japan, which would reverse a 2006 pact that a conservative government reached with Washington.

The renewed debate over where to move the controversial US Marine Corps Futenma Air Base -- now located in a densely-populated urban area of Okinawa -- has cast a cloud over a scheduled November 12-13 Tokyo visit by Obama.

Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima on Tuesday submitted a position paper to the central government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in which he said the priority now was to move the base away from its current urban setting.

"It's best to transfer the facility outside of the prefecture, but I would concede to a plan for the relocation within the prefecture in order to get rid of the danger (of its urban location) as soon as possible," Nakaima said in the statement, according to local government officials in Okinawa prefecture.

The governor urged the central government to "clarify its policy on the relocation of the air base and present specific proposals at an early date".

The Futenma base on the island, which hosts more than half of the 47,000 American troops stationed in Japan, has long angered residents because of aircraft noise and frictions between the community and US service personnel.

Hatoyama has said he wants to review a 2006 accord with Washington under which the current base would be closed, thousands of Marines moved to Guam, and others moved to a new US base to be built by 2014 in an Okinawa coastal area.

The premier -- who has said he wants a "more equal" relationship with the United States, Japan's traditional top ally, but also voiced admiration for Obama -- said he wanted to seek more local opinions on the divisive topic.

"We have to listen to the opinions not only of the governor but of all the people in Okinawa," Hatoyama told reporters on Tuesday.

"We cannot ignore the Japan-US accord, which includes some important parts," Hatoyama said, adding that he still wanted to consider various opinions.

Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, said during a visit to Japan last weekend that he hoped "real progress" would be made on the issue before Obama's visit.

But Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said Tuesday that Tokyo does not expect to reach a breakthrough on the issue before Obama's visit.