NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Tokyo lodged a protest with Washington on Tuesday over two forced landings by American military helicopters in the past few days in Okinawa Prefecture, while U.S. defense chief Jim Mattis apologized to his Japanese counterpart over the incidents.
“Frequent accidents amplify locals’ anxiety,” Foreign Minister Taro Kono was quoted as telling U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty during a telephone conversation, according to Japanese government officials.
Kono told Hagerty that the central government has “a serious concern” about the frequency of such accidents and incidents and called on the United States to take “fundamental measures” to prevent future occurrences.
Hagerty said the U.S. considers the safety of locals a top priority and expressed his readiness to provide information quickly, according to Foreign Ministry officials.
Earlier in the day, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera made a similar request to Mattis during a teleconference. Mattis offered an apology and agreed to work on the issue, according to Onodera.
An AH-1 attack helicopter from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the densely populated city of Ginowan was forced to land at a waste disposal site in the village of Yomitan on Monday, just two days after a UH-1 helicopter, also from the base, made an emergency landing on a beach on Ikei Island in the city of Uruma.
Although the incidents resulted in no injuries, concerns were reignited among the local government and residents.
The two forced landings are the latest in a slew of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft in the island prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
Last October, a CH-53E helicopter crash-landed and burst into flames, while a large window dropped from another helicopter of the same type onto a playground at an elementary school in December, both on Okinawa’s main island.
“I am really speechless,” Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga told reporters Tuesday. “Nothing has moved forward (to prevent such incidents happening).”
Deputy Gov. Moritake Tomikawa told senior Japanese Defense and Foreign Ministry officials to urge the U.S. military to take effective preventive measures.
The AH-1 helicopter made what the U.S. military called a precautionary landing at the site, about 250 meters from a hotel, at about 4:45 p.m. Monday. Neither of the aircraft’s two crew members were hurt. The aircraft took off and flew to the Futenma base on Tuesday morning.
According to the Defense Ministry’s local bureau, the U.S. military said Tuesday that the crew saw a warning light regarding its tail rotor system and decided to make a landing to avoid an accident.
Senior Okinawa Prefectural Government officials are considering demanding the Japanese government and the U.S. military to ground all AH-1 and UH-1 helicopters for inspections until the causes of the incidents are identified.
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