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Japan

Controversial US airbase in Okinawa gets green light

Japanese officials in Okinawa have approved the long-stalled relocation of a controversial US military base. The breakthrough could remove a sore spot in relations between Tokyo and Washington.

Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima gave the go-ahead Friday (27.12.2013) for land reclamation to begin for a new US military base, an issue that has been deadlocked for years.

But the decision is likely to spark renewed protests from Okinawans fed up with playing host to an outsized share of the US military presence in Japan.

Announcing his authorization for the work to start, the governor also told reporters "I have not changed my pledge" to move the base off the island, a position he has held for three years. He added that the priority was to close the current site, located near residential areas.

"What's important here is to move the dangerous air base out of the city as soon as possible," he said.

"What the governor has done is unforgivable," Yuichi Higa, the head of the assembly in Nago city, where the new base is to be built, told AP. "Residents who are opposed will surely resort to the use of force, such as blocking roads to stop this from happening."

The decision comes more than 17 years after the two allies agreed to move the US Marines' Futenma Air Station from a densely populated urban area. The decision was made partly in response to widespread anger after the abduction and gang-rape of a 12-year-old girl by three servicemen in 1995.

Relations between Washington and Tokyo dropped precipitously after the 2009 election of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, partly on a promise that he would turf the base out of Okinawa, much to the irritation of Washington policymakers.

The agreement will likely improve Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's relations with the US, possibly taking some of the sting out of American criticism of his provocative visit Thursday to a war shrine seen by China and Korea as a symbol of Japanese militarism.

About half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan are based in Okinawa, and many residents complain about crime, noise, and the risk of accidents that their presence brings. The new base is part of an agreement that would also move 9,000 Marines off Okinawa, including transferring 5,000 to Guam.

bk/jlw (AFP, AP, dpa)

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