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US asked to cut bases in Okinawa rape row



The Japanese government yesterday asked the United States to reduce its military presence on the island of Okinawa, in the latest attempt to appease growing outrage over a rape allegedly committed by three American servicemen.

Japan's Foreign Minister, Yohei Kono, made the request in a meeting with the US ambassador, Walter Mondale, but the scale of the planned reduction was immediately thrown into doubt. Okinawa contains three-quarters of the US bases in Japan, a perpetual source of resentment on an island that makes up less than 1 per cent of the country's area.

Foreign Ministry officials suggested that Okinawa's burden might be reduced to less than 70 per cent, but this was contradicted by the Defence Minister, Seishiro Eto, who said that such a scaling down would be "difficult" in the light of Japan's obligations under the Japan-US Security Treaty.

Military sites being considered for relocation elsewhere in Japan include three of the most controversial on Okinawa: a key port, first earmarked for return in 1974, a parachuting practice ground close to farms and houses, and an artillery range over a main road which has attracted complaints about unexploded shells and environmental damage.

Yesterday's announcement provoked scepticism on Okinawa, which was governed directly by America from 1945 until its reversion to Japan in 1972. "For 10 years, they've been saying they would return these sites," said a spokesman for the Okinawa prefectural government. "They could have dealt with it long ago, and right now we don't expect too much."

The island has been in uproar since the beginning of September, when a 12-year-old schoolgirl was abducted and gang-raped, allegedly by an American sailor and two Marines. Government officials, military officers and even President Bill Clinton have offered repeated expressions of regret, discipline has been tightly enforced and sales of alcohol have been restricted on base. US Marines will suspend operations for a "day of reflection" on the crime and its consequences.

But the gestures have done little to stem local anger. There have been daily demonstrations in Okinawa and Tokyo, where chants of "Yankee, Go Home!" have brought back memories of the 1960s, when opposition to the security treaty provoked riots in Tokyo. As many as 40,000 people are expected to attend a rally on 21 October. Yesterday the last of Okinawa's 53 municipal assemblies unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a review of the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement, which allowed the three suspects to remain in US custody until their indictment by Japanese prosecutors last Friday.

Last week the governor of Okinawa, Masahide Ota, refused to sign documents allowing the US military to commandeer land occupied by military sites.