TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan has given the controversial MV-22 Osprey aircraft the green light to fly over the country from next month after tests found the American hybrid plane safe despite a number of crashes.
The United States had been seeking to deploy the tilt-rotor aircraft -- which takes off like a helicopter but flies like a plane -- to the southern Japanese island of Okinawa despite strong public opposition largely on safety grounds after it crashed twice earlier this year.
Final results of crash investigations have confirmed that the helicopter-plane is safe and the United States will begin deployment at some point in October, Japanese Defence Minister Satoshi Morimoto said on Wednesday.
"We have confirmed that the two accidents were caused by human factors and not by the aircrafts' systemic problems or by technical problems," he said, addressing reporters together with Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba.
"We have confirmed the safety for the Osprey to operate, and on the premise that there will be maximum consideration provided for the public, we have decided to allow the United States to start operating the Osprey."
The Pentagon welcomed Tokyo's decision as a sign of the strength of the U.S.-Japanese partnership.
"It is a testament to the strength and maturity of our alliance, which remains the cornerstone for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region," spokesman George Little said in a statement.
The Osprey crash in Morocco in April killed two U.S. Marines, while the one in Florida in June left five injured. Thirty people, including 26 Marines, were killed in test flights or training accidents from 1991 through 2000 during the aircraft's development.
The first 12 MV-22s arrived by ship on July 23 at Iwakuni, the only U.S. Marine Corps station on the main Japanese islands. The Defense Department ultimately plans to base them at Futenma, a Marine Corps Air Station on Okinawa. They were grounded for the time of the investigation.
The Osprey is key to a U.S. force realignment in the Asia-Pacific region that has become a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's foreign policy since January.
"With twice the speed, three times the payload, and four times the range, the Osprey will make a major contribution in upgrading the capabilities of the alliance," Little said.
The aircraft is built by Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing Co. It will replace the 40-year-old CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters.
(Reporting by Yoko Kubota; Additional reporting by David Alexander in Beijing; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)