The Defense Agency on Thursday dismissed a colonel and punished 23 other Ground Self-Defense Force officers, including two lieutenant generals, for covering up alleged illegal shooting at a military firing range.

The agency dismissed Col. Yasunobu Hideshima, 53, who was indicted in March on charges of allowing civilian friends to fire GSDF guns during a drill in 1994. It also suspended Lt. Gen. Yoshiharu Amano, 56, and Lt. Gen. Michihiko Suzuki, 53, from duty for 20 days each.

This marks the first time officers of the rank of lieutenant general — the second highest of the 18 GSDF ranks — have been suspended from duty.

Amano has said he will resign, and is expected to do so together with Suzuki in the near future to take responsibility for the scandal, agency officials said.

Amano, commander of the GSDF’s Western Army, was the personnel department head at the time of the shooting incident. Suzuki, commander of the force’s 9th Division, was personnel planning section chief at the time.

The agency’s in-house investigation report reveals that the personnel department led the coverup. The department feared the GSDF would lose public trust if the case came to light and therefore reduced the punishment for Hideshima to admonition, a penalty that is usually not publicized.

Among the 21 others punished, Maj. Gen. Junichi Ikeda received a 10-day suspension from duty, two officers were suspended for three days, and three had their salaries cut by 3.33 percent for one month.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said in a regular press conference that the case was “extremely regrettable,” but he believes the agency has strictly punished those involved in the incident. He said the government will try to prevent the recurrence of such scandals and strive to restore public confidence.

According to the agency report, Hideshima, who was a leader of the GSDF’s 1st Airborne Brigade at the time, invited three acquaintances to the force’s Higashifuji range in Shizuoka Prefecture in November 1994 and, without police approval, fired a gun that belonged to one of his friends.

Hideshima also let the three civilians fire a GSDF rifle and machinegun at the range. Hideshima had his subordinates prepare 500 rounds of ammunition and also allowed GSDF personnel to fire the acquaintance’s gun, also without police approval, the report says.

The Self-Defense Forces Law requires SDF personnel to obtain police approval before firing guns that do not belong to the SDF, while the firearms control law prohibits civilians from firing SDF guns.

The SDF, which learned about the incident immediately afterward, questioned Hideshima and reported the case to the Eastern Army Headquarters, prompting that army’s commanding general to order strict punishment for Hideshima.

Suzuki, however, suggested limiting the punishment to an admonition and transferring Hideshima to another post, as he preferred not to make the case public, the report says.

Amano approved Suzuki’s plan and told the Eastern Army’s commander they had better not publicize the incident.

The chief of the GSDF police dropped the investigation into the case and told Amano that the military police would not intervene in the incident, according to the report.

When first questioned by the SDF, Hideshima vehemently denied he let his civilian friends fire a GSDF rifle and machinegun, and the subordinates who witnessed the shooting kept silent, in line with an order from Hideshima, the report says.

The colonel and the three civilians were arrested only after the media publicized the case in January.