US military retreats over Japanese base after protests by islanders

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The United States has been forced to back down over its plan to build a large offshore military base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa after local protests stalled construction.

Washington and Tokyo had wanted to build a heliport and 1.5-mile runway over pristine coral reef more than a mile offshore, near Heneko village. But the plan enraged many locals on the small island, which already hosts around half of the 37,000 American troops stationed in Japan. Environmentalists joined the opposition to the planned base, saying it would destroy the reef, which is home to the dugong, an endangered species of sea mammal.

Richard Lawless of the US Defence Department said yesterday that a compromise, which will entail moving the new base to nearby Camp Schwab, had been agreed after considering "the importance of the Japan-US alliance".

Tokyo is an important ally in America's "war on terror" and Washington considers Okinawa, which is close to China and North Korea, a vital military lynchpin amid a major realignment of US forces worldwide. Japan contributes more than $1bn (£560m) a year and leases thousands of acres of land to US forces stationed in the country.

A congressional report released two months ago by the Overseas Bases Commission recommended maintaining current US troop levels on Okinawa. It said: "Diminishing our combat capability on the island would pose great risk to our national interests in the region."

Washington and Tokyo agreed in 1996 to build a new heliport to replace Futenma base, which sits in the heart of Okinawa's densely populated Ginowan City. The agreement had been forced on the two governments by the largest anti-US protests in Okinawa's modern history. The protests followed the kidnap and rape of a 12-year-old girl by two US Marines and a sailor.

But the Heneko plan, announced after years of tortuous negotiations, then proved deeply unpopular: a survey by the Okinawa Times-Asahi Shimbun newspaper last year found that 81 per cent of local people opposed it and dozens of mainly elderly protesters began blocking test drilling for the site 18 months ago.

The stalling of the plan angered Washington and is widely blamed for the cancellation of a scheduled visit to Japan this month by the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Tokyo was keen to resolve the dispute before President George Bush's visit next month; a relieved Japanese Secretary of Defence, Yoshinori Ono, said last night that the talks had been "long and difficult".

Despite the climb-down, however, protesters said last night that they were angry that the base was going to be built in Okinawa at all. Many said that the move to Camp Schwab would still mean construction would take place up to the shoreline.

"Tokyo and America just completely take us for granted. If they want a new base, why don't they build it on the mainland or outside Japan altogether?" asked one of the protest leaders, Osamu Taira. "The only reason that they foist it on us is because they know we are small and powerless. We will protest until this plan is scrapped and the military is gone from here."