NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – The Defense Ministry on Tuesday used Ground Self-Defense Force helicopters to airlift trucks and other equipment for the construction of U.S. helipads in Okinawa Prefecture, further angering local protesters seeking to block the work.
The ministry’s Okinawa bureau, which is in charge of the project, said it used CH-47 transportation helicopters to “carry out construction work safely and smoothly.”
It is extremely rare for Self-Defense Forces helicopters to be used for the construction of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
The move came as protests continue to hamper the transportation of equipment to the construction site inside a vast training area used by U.S. forces.
Locals, especially people in the Takae neighborhood in Higashi where two helipads have already been built, are against further construction, citing concerns that the U.S. facility could cause additional safety and noise problems because it is likely to be used by Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
The central government has said the completion of the helipads will benefit the people of the prefecture — already frustrated by hosting the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan — because it will pave the way for the return of about half of the land used by the Northern Training Area.
On Tuesday morning, CH-47 helicopters carrying trucks and heavy machinery made several trips within the training area. The helicopters flew over prefectural roads and opponents argued that the mission is dangerous.
The Defense Ministry said it had been using commercial helicopters to transfer equipment because protesters have been blocking some of the roads connected to the construction site. But they decided to employ GSDF helicopters for the transportation of heavier vehicles.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said during a news conference in Tokyo that the use of GSDF aircraft will be kept to “the minimum necessary.”
But some protesters expressed anger about the central government’s move, with Masahiro Kunimoto, 69, saying, “This is a sign that the state is seeking to push ahead with the construction of the helipads no matter what.”
The United States agreed in 1996 to return to Japan about 4,000 hectares, or almost half of the training area straddling the villages of Kunigami and Higashi in northern Okinawa Prefecture, in exchange for relocating helipads from the portion of the base to be returned to the area retained.
Two of the six helipads have already been completed. The work, which began in 2007, had been suspended due to the protests but resumed in July.
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