The U.S. military said Tuesday it is suspending flights by HH-60 helicopters at Japan’s request until the cause of a crash in Okinawa has been determined.
After attending the ceremony to mark the 68th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said safety should not be compromised.
“It is important that the safety of local people comes first. We would like to ask the U.S. side to give utmost consideration to safety,” he said during a news conference in Hiroshima.
To ease concern about U.S. military operations, Japanese and U.S. officials are expected to hold a joint committee meeting Thursday to share information about the accident and discuss preventive measures, Japanese officials said.
Air operations for the rescue squadron to which the crashed HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter belonged have been suspended indefinitely, the 18th Wing public affairs division of the U.S. Kadena Air Base said.
The U.S. Kadena Air Base issued a statement earlier in the day saying human remains were discovered at the crash site in Camp Hansen in central Okinawa Island, but that they had not yet been identified. The helicopter, part of a rescue squadron, reportedly had four crew members. Three were listed in stable condition, the statement from Kadena said.
The crash Monday was in a mountainous area, reportedly about 2 km from the nearest residential area.
A U.S. military helicopter was seen dumping water Monday and Tuesday in the area and fire trucks and ambulances of the U.S. forces were observed at one of Camp Hansen’s gates.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima met separately in Tokyo with the foreign and defense ministers as well as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to call for a thorough investigation into the accident.
Nakaima said it is inevitable that people in Okinawa will associate the accident with the Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft, which the U.S. military started deploying in Okinawa last year to replace aging CH-46 helicopters.
“There are many bases in Okinawa near densely populated areas. We want the government to ask the U.S side to provide information about why the crash happened and suspend flights until measures are taken to prevent a recurrence,” Nakaima told Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.
Onodera said he discussed the issue with U.S. Ambassador John Roos during the day and that the government was still gathering information.
“We understand that there are various concerns among the people of Okinawa, including over the deployment of the Osprey. We asked (the U.S. side) to deal with the latest accident in a manner that addresses the local concerns,” Onodera said.
Coming at a sensitive time, the accident prompted the U.S. military to put off the transfer of additional MV-22 Osprey aircraft from Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to the Futenma base in Okinawa.
Residents in Okinawa held a protest Tuesday over the crash, calling for the suspension of drills by U.S. forces and the removal of the military bases.
About 200 protesters gathered in front of one of the gates at Futenma in the city of Ginowan.
Ryokichi Chinen, 74, from the town of Chatan, said the U.S. forces “leave people’s lives on a back burner and give priority to military training.”
Chinen, who survived the Battle of Okinawa in the final days of World War II in 1945 at age 6, said training flights by U.S. fighter jets near his home remind him of strafing runs during the war.
“U.S. military aircraft crashes could occur anytime. The military bases should be removed,” he said.
Atsushi Toma, mayor of the village of Ginoza, which hosts part of Camp Hansen, urged the head of the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa branch to work to prevent such accidents and clarify the cause of the crash.
Hirofumi Takeda, chief of the Okinawa Defense Bureau, told Toma it is “regrettable” that the accident occurred despite the central government’s request to the United States to ensure the safety of military flight operations.