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Japan refers U.S. military pilot to Japanese prosecutors over Osprey crash

AFP-JIJI, JIJI

Japanese authorities on Tuesday referred to prosecutors a case involving a U.S. military pilot related to the 2016 crash of an Osprey aircraft, which fueled sentiment against a U.S. base in Okinawa Prefecture.

The Japan Coast Guard’s 11th regional headquarters, based in the Okinawa capital of Naha, sent public prosecutors papers on the pilot without identifying them by name, affiliation or other details.

The coast guard spokesman said the pilot has not been identified by U.S. forces, and that the American military has so far not cooperated with the investigation into the accident.

No one was killed in the crash, which caused injuries to two of the five crew members aboard the U.S. Marine MV-22 Osprey.

The Pentagon has described the December 2016 crash, which saw the plane end up in shallow water off Okinawa, as a “mishap.”

Under the terms of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement that governs the presence of U.S. troops in the country, Japan can indict U.S. military personnel accused of crimes in the country.

But Japanese courts do not have automatic jurisdiction to hear the cases.

According to the Japan Coast Guard regional headquarters, the pilot is suspected of having failed to maintain appropriate speed while carrying out an aerial refueling mission.

The pilot allegedly brought the Osprey’s propeller into contact with the fueling equipment of an air tanker, destroying the tilt-rotor transport aircraft.

An investigation report submitted by the U.S. military to the Defense Ministry in September 2017 said that the Osprey accelerated excessively, made contact with the fueling hose of the air tanker and performed an emergency landing in shallow waters.

During its investigation, the JCG’s regional headquarters sought cooperation from the U.S. military and asked for interviews with the pilot and others. Under the bilateral status of the forces agreement, Japan needs consent from the U.S. to investigate accidents caused by U.S. military personnel during their duties.

But the U.S. did not respond to the request from the coast guard, according to the sources.

The incident sparked anger on Okinawa — a strategic outpost of U.S. military power that hosts more than half of the 47,000 American military personnel in Japan.

The military presence is a sensitive subject on the island, where many feel other parts of Japan should share the burden of hosting U.S. personnel.

The incident also came at a delicate time, with Tokyo and Washington pushing to relocate an airbase on Okinawa despite local opposition.

The MV-22 Osprey, a so-called tilt-rotor plane, is half helicopter, half turboprop with the manoeuvrability of a chopper and the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft.

But a series of accidents involving the plane have prompted protests by Okinawa residents concerned about its use on the island.

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