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Defense minister and Okinawa governor criticize U.S. forces for resuming CH-53 helicopter flights soon after accident

Kyodo

The U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa on Wednesday resumed flight operations of its CH-53E transport helicopters, insisting it has confirmed their safety following a crash-landing by one a week ago.

A CH-53E took off Wednesday morning from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, where the choppers are based. The move came even as safety concerns and protests over the accident are gathering momentum at municipalities in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan. The resumption also drew rebukes from both the Japanese government and the Okinawa government.

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga said in a statement that he “absolutely cannot tolerate” the U.S. military’s stance, describing the resumption as “reckless” and saying the military failed to clarify the cause of the accident and explain what preventive measures they will take. He urged the central government to address the issue.

In Tokyo, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters it was “extremely regrettable” that the same type of helicopter as the one that crash-landed is flying again when the central government has not been provided with sufficient information as to why the U.S. military had judged CH-53Es safe to operate. The minister had demanded an “indefinite period” of suspension until safety is ensured.

A press release issued by the marines in Okinawa said Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the commanding general of U.S. Marine Corps Forces in Japan, is “satisfied that the CH-53E aircraft is prepared to return to safe flight operations” and that the decision was “not taken lightly.”

“Aviation experts have conducted a thorough review of the maintenance records and found no issues with the standard maintenance practices, actions, technical directives, periodic inspections and no operational matters to warrant concern,” it said.

In the accident last Wednesday, the large transport helicopter burst into flames as it made an emergency landing near the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area on the main island of Okinawa.

None of the seven crew members or local residents was hurt in the accident. But the site, in the village of Higashi, was a few hundred meters away from homes, rekindling concerns over the risks locals who live close to U.S. military facilities face.

Nicholson ordered a 96-hour operational pause Thursday morning for all CH-53E helicopters stationed in Okinawa, but Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga had demanded the aircraft be grounded until the cause of the accident is identified and “effective” preventive steps are taken.

The press release did not explain the cause of the accident or indicate preventive measures.

“We take the safety of our aircrews and the citizens of Okinawa seriously,” Nicholson was quoted as saying. “The CH-53E is a reliable aircraft that has served this alliance successfully for many decades here on Okinawa and in mainland Japan.”

On Tuesday, the local assemblies of the village of Higashi and the city of Ginowan, which hosts U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, unanimously adopted resolutions protesting the accident.

At the accident site, officials of the Defense Ministry’s local bureau and the Okinawa Prefectural Government entered the restricted zone set by the U.S. military to conduct radiation surveys as locals have expressed concerns over the radioactive material said to be used in parts of the helicopter.

The marines said Sunday that radioactive material has been removed from the helicopter and that it is not used at a level that could affect health. They did not disclose what radioactive substance was used or how much.

The CH-53E in question belonged to the Futenma base. The accident follows the ditching of a U.S. military Osprey aircraft off the main island of Okinawa in December, which was also based in Futenma.

Onodera had earlier said Japan expects the U.S. military to suspend CH-53E flights in Okinawa for an “indefinite period” until their safety is ensured.

Meanwhile, he told reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday that he will ask the U.S. military to refrain from conducting a missile countermeasure exercise over land in which aircraft deploy decoy flares, citing safety concerns among local residents.

The U.S. military has informed the Defense Ministry that F/A-18 fighter aircraft belonging to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture conducted such a drill on Wednesday over neighboring Hiroshima Prefecture, which had prompted local residents to complain about flares generated during the drill.