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Fighter planes collision triggers new Okinawa protests

Date Posted: 2004-10-07

Two fighter aircraft collided during a training exercise in the skies near Okinawa earlier this week, stirring a fresh round of anti-military protests from local government leaders.

The two U.S. Air Force F-15 jet fighters were engaged in aerial maneuvers about 200 kilometers south of Okinawa when the wingtip on one struck the rear tail fins of the second. Both aircraft landed safely at Kadena Air Base shortly after the incident. There were no injuries reported.

The planes belong to a fighter squadron based at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, but the unit is on temporary duty in Okinawa. Officials told local media the jets had been involved in close air combat training.

Governor Keiichi Inamine was quick to attack the military. “I’m infuriated with the fact than another accident occurred while the cause of the helicopter crash hasn’t yet been clarified,” Inamine told reporters. He was referring the the August 13th crash of a Marine Corps helicopter onto Okinawa International University campus several hundred yards from Futenma Air Station. There were no injuries in that crash.

Inamine is demanding the military change its policies on flights over Okinawa, and calling for suspension of all flights over residential areas. Military officials noted that the emergency landings Monday were made from over water, specifically to avoid flying over populated areas. The governor is asking the military to investigate the crash, grounding all F-15 aircraft until the cause of this week’s crash is determined. He said the crash could have been more serious than the August helicopter crash.

He says the latest incident makes the situation between Okinawans and the military even more unstable, saying anger and mistrust of Americans is on the rise. Inamine also criticized the Japanese government, saying it should be more attentive and taking the issues seriously.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the planes involved in the training incident were two of 12 assigned temporarily to Okinawa in August. They are to return to Alaska in January.

Okinawa Prefecture Assembly, meanwhile, is taking a more cautious, less critical approach. The Assembly’s Special Committee on Military Base Affairs is going to discuss the accident, and then make its findings.

Kadena Mayor Tokujitsu Miyagi weighed in on the issue as well, telling a news conference he wants an investigation into the accident cause, as well as a thorough study of the aircraft visiting Okinawa. He called the F-15’s “aging” and said they’re potential hazards to Okinawa citizens, because no individual can predict when a crash might occur.

Okinawa City Mayor Masakazu Nakazone wants to see flights and training stopped for now, at least until an investigation is complete. He criticized American promises to be more careful about flight operations, and the notion that more attention would be paid to flight safety. Choichi Hentona, Chatan Town Mayor, echoed the thoughts, calling the accident “very regrettable.”

Ginowan City’s hardline anti-base mayor, Yoichi Iha, jumped on the F-15 incident as further reason military operations on Okinawa should be curbed. He told reporters he wants immediate government action to keep Okinawa skies from becoming a more dangerous zone. He again called for Washington to slow the military operations tempo while Washington and Tokyo work out changes in force structures.

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