US envoy urges Okinawa base issue resolved soon

AP News
Posted: Nov 30, 2009 9:11 AM

U.S. Ambassador John Roos, making his first trip to the southern island of Okinawa, urged Japan on Monday to honor an agreement to relocate a major U.S. Marine base.

The issue has become a major sticking point in a wider reorganization of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, including moving 8,000 to the American territory of Guam.

Japan and the U.S. agreed in 2006 to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a site farther north on Okinawa in the city of Nago. But Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has put the deal on hold and indicated the relocation site could be changed, frustrating American defense officials.

Okinawans have long complained about noise, pollution and crime linked to U.S. troops. Many of them want the base moved off the island entirely and thousands protested over the issue earlier this month.

Roos, who arrived in Japan in August, held talks with Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and said Japan should stick with the agreement, saying "it is the best and only viable option."

If the Futenma issue isn't resolved soon, U.S. defense officials warn it could delay the timeline of the entire reorganization, which was meant to relieve the burden on Okinawa, which hosts more than half the American troops in Japan, and create mistrust between the two countries.

Roos' visit comes as the two countries have sought to resolve the problem through a task force established in early November. U.S. officials said the joint panel is aimed at helping Japanese officials be fully convinced about the agreement, but Hatoyama said Tokyo is not bound by it.

Adding more pressure, Pacific Command commander Adm. Robert Willard visited Tokyo on Monday and told Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada the Futenma issue is the key element of the U.S. military realignment in Japan and should be resolved expeditiously, according to a ministry statement.

Okada said the issue is difficult but hoped to resolve it "by the end of the year."

Earlier Monday, Hatoyama met with the Okinawa governor in Tokyo and said he "would not irresponsibly keep postponing a decision" and wanted to seek ways to reduce Okinawa's burden as much as possible.

During the three-day visit to Okinawa, Roos was also to observe key U.S. bases and meet top military officials there.