NAHA, Okinawa Pref. – U.S. forces resumed flight drills Monday at the Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, despite a protest by Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha following a helicopter crash in the city last week.
The drills were resumed shortly after Brig. Gen. James Flock, commander of the marine base, met Iha to receive his protest about Friday’s crash of a CH-53D transport helicopter on the campus of Okinawa International University.
Flock apologized for the accident but said the U.S. military would resume flight drills using aircraft other than CH-53D helicopters after conducting thorough investigations into their safety.
However, local opposition to the drills is expected to intensify, given that a detailed probe had yet to take place. The accident has also triggered calls from local residents for an unconditional return of the Futenma base to Japan.
The mayor strongly protested to Flock over the resumption of the flights, saying it will draw strong condemnation from residents of Okinawa.
“Futenma is a faulty air station,” Iha was quoted as telling Flock. “What we want is for the U.S. military to not operate such a dangerous air base.”
At around 11:20 a.m. Monday, a KC-130 transport aircraft was seen taking off from the base.
Some 600 local residents and union members held a gathering near the gate a little after noon, saying now was the time to redouble efforts to move the facility out of the city.
The accident injured the three crew members aboard the chopper, but nobody else was hurt. The university is on summer break and the campus was virtually empty at the time.
Flock later visited the university and apologized to the school’s president, Tomoaki Toguchi, over the accident.
At the crash site, U.S. military personnel began work Monday morning to remove the wreckage, cutting down trees around it. In the afternoon, part of the wreckage was carted out of the campus aboard a large tractor-trailer rig and transported it to the Futenma base. Okinawa police kept guard as the vehicle moved to a base gate about 500 meters from the campus.
The move came as the U.S. military ignored demands by Japanese authorities to conduct an on-site investigation of the crash before moving the wreckage.
The Okinawa Prefectural Government has meanwhile decided to step up its calls to the Japanese and U.S. governments for an early return of the Futenma base.
In 1996, the United States agreed to return the base to Japan pending the provision of a relocation facility in Okinawa. The handover has been on hold, however, because the candidate facility has yet to be built off the northern Okinawa city of Nago due to local opposition.
Even if construction of the new facility gets under way, it is expected to take more than a decade to be completed.
“(The Nago project) will not lead to an immediate return of Futenma because it will take more than 10 years for the new airfield to become operational. We want to have (Futenma) returned by dividing its functions among various (existing) bases,” Iha told Deputy Okinawa Gov. Hirotaka Makino.
“As long as the Futenma base exists, accidents will happen,” Iha said as he urged the prefecture to pressure Tokyo into holding talks with the U.S. for closing the base.
According to prefectural officials, plans are under way for Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine to meet Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi later this week to discuss the issue, after Inamine returns to Japan from an overseas trip.
The governor is also scheduled to visit the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, according to the officials.
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