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The U.S. Forces Japan commander on Thursday defended the U.S. handling of the probe into the marine helicopter crash in Okinawa and refusal to allow local police to participate.

The handling of the investigation is “precisely in the confines of the agreement we have with the government of Japan” as well as U.S. security guidelines, Lt. Gen. Thomas Waskow said at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, stressing that the United States fully cooperated with local authorities to secure the crash site.

The Aug. 13 crash of a CH-53D Sea Stallion on the Okinawa International University campus has reignited protests about the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station, which has become surrounded by a populated residential area in Ginowan. The U.S. handling of the accident probe and resumption of CH-53D flights only fueled their anger.

U.S. military authorities removed the helicopter wreckage from the accident scene before allowing Japanese police onto the site. And on Sunday, despite calls by the mayor to halt all air traffic at the base, six CH-53Ds were allowed to take off for subsequent deployment to Iraq.

Waskow said he allowed the choppers to depart on orders from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He stressed that safety procedures had been followed.

He also noted that although the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement does not provide for Japanese police to conduct on-site probes into U.S. military accidents, the U.S. forces cooperated with local authorities, including securing the site of the crash and the safety of civilians.

Waskow said the U.S. Marine Corps is currently conducting a special investigation “to determine the cause and responsibility for the mishap, the nature and extent of injuries, a description of damage to property and any other permanent circumstances,” in addition to the normal aircraft accident investigation.

The U.S. military will release an interim report of the special probe Friday, he said, adding that usually a report is made public only after the investigation has been completed.

Later in the day, Japan and the United States held the first meeting in Tokyo of a bilateral panel to look into the cause of the crash.

The U.S. side apologized at the meeting for causing anxiety among the people of Okinawa. Japan expressed its displeasure over the resumption of CH-53D flights and asked for an explanation, a Japanese official said.

The U.S. side reiterated the fact that the crash was caused by a mechanical failure, but added that a final report on the special probe will be submitted to the panel within 30 days, according to the official.

The panel will then make recommendations to the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee, which deals with matters related to U.S. forces in Japan, on how to prevent a similar accident from happening again, he said.

The Japanese side was represented by officials from the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Agency, the National Police Agency and other relevant ministries. U.S. military officials and embassy staff members represented the U.S. side.

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