TOKYO (AP) — Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday he has decided to temporarily suspend preliminary work on moving a U.S. Marine Corps base on Okinawa and will resume talks on the contentious relocation plan.
The central government and Okinawa's prefectural government have been locked in a legal battle over relocating the base, with both sides suing the other.
Abe said that his government is accepting a court proposal not to force the reclamation work over Okinawa's objections. The court in February made the proposal as an interim step allowing talks. Details of the proposal were not made public.
The sudden reversal of his policy to continue with the reclamation work is seen as an attempt to win votes ahead of this summer's parliamentary elections.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga last year issued an order to suspend permission for the reclamation work. Then the central government sued to reverse the order, to which Okinawa counter-sued, seeking a court injunction.
The work involves filling in part of a bay to create off-coast runways for Futenma air station, which is now in a more densely populated area on the island.
Onaga later flew in to Tokyo and held talks with Abe at his office, both confirming to follow the court proposal and abide by any subsequent court decisions related to their legal dispute. Onaga welcomed Friday's decision by both sides as "very significant."
Abe said the plan to eventually move the base to the town of Henoko is unchanged. The relocation is based on a 20-year-old bilateral agreement to reduce the burden of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa.
Opponents want the base moved off Okinawa entirely, and a prospect for a compromise is still unclear, though Okinawa is expected to drop the lawsuit.
Abe said he wants to avoid leaving the situation deadlocked "for years to come, a development that nobody wants to see."
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday that the U.S. understands that the Japanese government took its decision after careful consideration. He said the allies remain committed to the planned base relocation.
America's top military official in the Pacific said last month that the relocation plan has been pushed back by two years until 2025 from the current target, because of delays from the disputes.
The U.S. has agreed to shift 8,000 to 10,000 Marines off Okinawa in the 2020s, mainly to Guam and Hawaii, but Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said that would happen after Futenma's relocation.
The southern island prefecture is home to about half of about 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan under the bilateral security treaty. Many Okinawans complain about crime and noise linked to the U.S. military bases.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
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