U.S. to extend hunt for missing crew of ship by one day

Kyodo

The U.S. Coast Guard agreed Wednesday to extend for another day its search off Hawaii for nine Japanese who are believed to be entombed in a fisheries training ship that sank when it was struck by a surfacing U.S. Navy submarine on Feb. 9.

Crew members of the Ehime Maru arrive at Narita airport.

Coast Guard officials told Japanese officials earlier in the day that they had decided to terminate the search, but they did an about-face after listening to the wishes of the relatives of those missing, sources said.

Lawmaker Yoshitaka Sakurada, a parliamentary foreign secretary, met with the deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific forces, Lt. Gen. Thomas Case, to voice his regret over the latest report that two civilians had been sitting at the controls of the USS Greeneville during a rapid-surfacing drill at the time of the accident.

During this meeting, Case conveyed the Coast Guard’s desire to end the search, to which the lawmaker urged that they reconsider, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

However, Coast Guard officials suggest the operation could be terminated if no clues are found to the missing nine at the end of their search on Thursday.

Meanwhile, U.S. Navy officials deployed an unmanned deep-sea search vessel Wednesday morning to the waters where the Ehime Maru went down.

The Scorpio-2 probe, which is equipped with sonar and video cameras, will be used to determine the exact location of the vessel and learn about the condition of the ship, according to U.S. officials.

The 499-ton Ehime Maru, of Uwajima Fisheries High School in Ehime Prefecture, sank 18 km south of Oahu Island after being struck by the submarine.

Twenty-six people, including nine students, were rescued from the sea, but the remaining nine — four students, two teachers and three Ehime Maru crew members — are still missing.

All 16 of the rescued crew members except the skipper, Hisao Onishi, who expressed a desire to remain until the fate of his vessel has been confirmed, left Hawaii for Japan on Wednesday.

The nine surviving students returned to Japan on Tuesday.

Powell urged to help

Foreign Minister Yohei Kono on Thursday urged U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to look into whether the fact that civilians were at the controls of the U.S. nuclear submarine that struck and sank a Japanese fisheries training ship off Hawaii last Friday was in any way the cause of the accident.

“I cannot help but say it is an extremely grave situation if it were the case that the participation of civilians in the submarine’s surfacing maneuver led to the accident,” Kono was quoted by ministry officials as telling Powell in a 20-minute telephone conversation.

Kono, citing a CNN report about the participation of two civilians, complained that U.S. officials have not informed Japan about the matter, saying it is “regrettable,” according to the officials.

Powell explained that it is common practice to allow civilians to ride on such subs and said he understands that having them on board did not cause the accident. He told Kono, however, that he cannot say anything definitely until a formal investigation into the accident is completed.

Kono demanded that the United States provide information as quickly as possible as to what exactly the civilians did at the controls, whether their actions were in line with regulations and whether they had any causal connection to the sinking.

He also asked why the U.S. had not immediately informed Japan that civilians had taken part in the sub’s maneuvers, the officials said.

Powell said the U.S. Defense Department and Navy are conducting thorough investigations and any accurate information will be provided to Tokyo as soon as it is available.

Kono emphasized the importance of concerted cooperation and efforts by himself and Powell, who are responsible for bilateral relations on behalf of their respective countries, in working to resolve the outstanding issues surrounding the accident.

“The accident occurred just as we were about to reinforce bilateral ties. I hope you will follow this incident with attention and deal with it in a way that sufficiently considers the feelings of Japanese citizens,” Kono was quoted as saying.

Powell, again expressing his apologies and regret over the accident, said he is aware of the gravity of the situation and agreed to work with Kono to make sure the accident does not harm the current warm bilateral relations.

Macke arranged tour

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) A civilian VIP cruise aboard the U.S. nuclear submarine Greeneville was arranged by a former admiral who was forced to retire about five years ago after making derogatory remarks in connection with the 1995 rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen, CBS TV reported Wednesday.

The 16 civilians were taking part in a Pentagon-backed publicity program to give VIPs the chance to play sailors and soldiers when the sub hit and sank a Japanese fisheries training ship, CBS said.

Richard Macke, former commander of the U.S. Pacific forces, made arrangements for the cruise, it said. He was forced to resign after saying the marines who raped a young Japanese girl should have hired a prostitute instead.

In September 1995, three marines raped a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa. The scandal unleashed a wave of anger and led Okinawans to call for a reduction in U.S. forces in the prefecture.

The U.S. military acknowledged Tuesday that two of the 16 civilians were sitting at the controls of the Greeneville at the time of the accident.

U.S. media said the captain and other Greeneville crew are likely to face criminal charges for allowing the two to sit at the sub’s controls.

The navy says it is routine to allow guests on submarines to sit in such posts during a rapid-surfacing drill.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told PBS TV on Wednesday that the Pentagon has no immediate plans to review the common custom of civilians riding in military vehicles.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a news briefing that the navy is investigating whether the civilians’ participation in the drill had anything to do with the accident.

“They’ll help determine what’s material, what’s not to the accident,” Boucher said.

Last year, 1,329 civilians rode in U.S. submarines on VIP cruises, according to the navy.

CNN TV said the 16 included members of an organization that supports the USS Missouri Battleship Memorial in Hawaii. Memberships of an association for the memorial range from $35 for individuals to more than $500,000 for corporate sponsorships.