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Japan's plan to send SDF team to ensure helicopter safety at U.S. base in Okinawa bogs down

Kyodo

Japan’s plan to send Self-Defense Forces personnel to a U.S. Marine base in Okinawa following several helicopter mishaps in the region earlier this year has hit a snag due to U.S. reluctance, a Japanese government source said Saturday.

The move involving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma was aimed at allaying safety concerns fanned by a spate of emergency landings involving U.S. military helicopters since January, the source said.

But a senior Defense Ministry official said they have not heard from the U.S. side since receiving a request to postpone the plan, indicating talks to proceed with the deployment are proving difficult.

The emergencies included an AH-1 attack helicopter based at Futenma that made a forced landing on Jan. 8 in the village of Yomitan, and an AH-1 that landed in the village of Tonaki on Jan. 23.

In response, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said on Jan. 30 that SDF members would be sent as part of government measures to ensure safety during U.S. military operations. SDF members with expertise in maintenance were scheduled to be dispatched on Feb. 1.

The U.S. initially agreed to the plan, but requested on the day of dispatch that it be put off to provide more time for preparation. Since then, both sides have continued trying to arrange the deployment, the defense ministry said.

But the source said the U.S. military sees the deployment as a form of inspection, as was reported by domestic media, and is opposed to a probe of this nature because the helicopters only made precautionary landings to prevent accidents.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that “ensuring the safety of local residents is the basic premise (in base) operations,” and urged the U.S. side to “see that safety is ensured, the cause is investigated and measures are taken to avoid the same thing happening again.”