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Okinawa’s governor says U.S. won’t listen; flights will continue on island

Date Posted: 2004-08-27

An angry Okinawa governor, Keiichi Inamine, says the military isn’t listening to his appeals for calm, and the grounding of all flights until a firm cause of this month’s helicopter crash is determined.

He says his requests have fallen on deaf ears with the military, including personal demands to Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman, the III Marine Expeditionary Force commander and the senior American general on Okinawa, during a weekend meeting at the Prefectural Headquarters where the American leader apologized for the crash. Two days after meeting with Blackman, Marine Corps CH-53D helicopters flew from Futenma to the USS Essex moored at White Beach.

"I strongly request the suspension of all flights until we can confirm the introduction of measures that can effectively prevent a recurrence" of accidents, Inamine told Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman, referring to the crash of a helicopter from the air station on Aug. 13 at a local university campus.

A day earlier, U.S. military helicopters flew out of the Futenma base for the first time since the crash, and flights are continuing consistent with essential military requirements.

During the meeting, Blackman apologized for the accident, but added "the requirement to fly was operationally driven." "Each of the helicopters was thoroughly checked to make sure it was safe for flight," he added.

Inamine also requested the U.S. military release the outcome of its investigation into the cause of the accident, but Blackman did not respond.

Earlier in the day, the governor visited the crash site at Okinawa International University. He vowed to help repair the damage and ease anxieties among local residents. Helicopter flights "are dangerous and cause significant psychological pressure," he said during talks with Tomoaki Toguchi, the university's president, and other university officials. The officials said their worries have increased since the accident, apparently voicing concerns that similar incidents may occur.

Inamine also appealed to the acting U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo, Michael Michalak. Michalak, the U.S. deputy chief of mission at the embassy, is charge d’affaires while Ambassador Howard Baker is in the United States. He asked Michalak to ground all flights until safety can be guaranteed.

Michalak, the governor said, simply told him the military will do its best to keep the aircraft in good working order. Inamine says he interpreted Michalak’s comments to mean the Embassy will not order the military to stop the flights.

Inamine, in his formal letter to the Embassy, said the August 13th crash "highlighted the danger posed by the Futenma Air Station, which is located in an urban area." He demanded a halt to all flights at the base until steps are taken to ensure there are no other accidents. The governor also called for a revision of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement so Japanese authorities can take part in accident investigations involving U.S. military aircraft in Okinawa, home to 75 percent of all U.S. forces in Japan.

While in Tokyo, Inamine also met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda at the Prime Minister's Official Residence. After their visit, Hosoda said the government will stick to the current plan to return the Futenma base site after a relocation airport is built off Nago, northern Okinawa, even though there has been little progress in the eight years since Tokyo and Washington agreed to the idea. "We will proceed according to the plan," Hosoda said. He added that a "sufficient investigation" should be conducted into the cause of the accident, adding that Japan will take up the issue in diplomatic talks with the U.S.

During the meeting, Inamine also urged the central government to make the U.S. suspend training flights at the base, and cut the U.S. forces there in order to reduce danger to residents. Hosoda said he told Inamine the government will "make sincere efforts" to fully consider Okinawa's requests.

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