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Okinawa residents square off against military in helicopters dispute

Date Posted: 2004-08-27

Relationships between the American military forces on Okinawa and its residents, already strained by a variety of issues surrounding base openings, closings and moves, are becoming more tense as protests mount over the August 13th crash of a Marine Corps helicopter.

The heavy lift transport helicopter, a Sea Stallion CH-53D, crashed and burned on the Okinawa International University Campus in Ginowan that Friday afternoon, moments after taking off from nearby Futenma Marine Corps Air Station. There were no civilian casualties, although the three military crewmen were injured in the crash.

The accident has reignited calls for the Futenma base to be moved from a congested residential neighborhood in the city of Ginowan.

Over the past weekend, an estimated 1,200 demonstrators gathered at Futenma's gates to demand an "immediate closure and unconditional return" of the base, while Inamine called for a suspension of flights until more stringent safety checks were implemented. Residents have long demanded that the land used for the Futenma base be returned to Okinawa. Tokyo and Washington agreed in 1996 to move the station from Ginowan. A plan to relocate it to an offshore site near the city of Nago has been stalled by protests from residents there.

The commandant of the Marine Corps has defended resumption of flights by the same model helicopters as the one that crashed at Futenma.

General Michael Hagee, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, told reporters “I can assure you we would not have put those helicopters back in the air if we were not firmly convinced they were safe. As controversy continues to mount over the decision, Hagee said “the investigation is still under way, but the initial report indicated to us that by doing a couple of things – which I cannot go into until the investigation is completed – those helicopters can fly safely.”

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