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Japan and the United States are discussing the possibility of transferring the U.S. Marine Corps’ helicopter unit from Futenma Air Station to the U.S. Iejima Auxiliary Air Field in Okinawa Prefecture, senior Japanese officials said Saturday.

The two governments are also considering having the Self-Defense Forces take control of Futenma and dispersing other functions of the base to other facilities, but allowing U.S. forces to use Futenma to gather supplies in an emergency, the Japanese government and ruling coalition officials said.

The “dispersive” relocation plan being discussed as an alternative to the stalled relocation plan for Futenma includes transferring the midair refueling unit to either the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Kanoya Base in Kagoshima Prefecture or the Air Self-Defense Force’s Nyutabaru Air Base in Miyazaki Prefecture.

Observers say that an agreement on the new proposal would lead to an overhaul of the original plan to move Futenma’s heliport functions to Nago, also in Okinawa Prefecture.

Transferring the helicopter unit would fulfill the Japanese government’s hope of eliminating the safety concerns posed by Futenma, which is situated in the center of a downtown residential area, while maintaining U.S. deterrence in the region, the officials said.

But negotiations on moving the helicopter unit to the base on Iejima Island, about 9 km northwest of Okinawa Island, are likely to be difficult due to water supply problems and past friction between the U.S. forces and local residents there.

Japan and the United States agreed in 1996 that the U.S. military would vacate the Futenma base in five to seven years on the condition that its heliport functions were relocated within the prefecture.

The Henoko area in Nago was chosen in 1999 as the site for the replacement facility, but construction of the envisioned military-civilian airport has not even begun amid strong opposition from local residents.

The government has begun drilling assessments at the site, but the replacement facility is expected to take more than 10 years to complete.

Back in 1996, Iejima was not considered one of the candidate sites for the Futenma relocation, given its distance from the main island, poor water supply and the history of friction between residents and the U.S. military, which seized their land after the war.

But in light of the crash of a U.S. military helicopter at a Japanese university adjacent to Futenma last August, the two governments now place the highest priority on eliminating the safety problem at Futenma.

Iejima, which has a 2,000-meter runway operated by the U.S. military, therefore became a candidate site, the officials said.

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