US troops under curfew in Okinawa after protests

David McNeill
Friday 22 February 2008 01:00
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The southern Japanese island of Okinawa is in uproar after a series of incidents involving American troops, including two alleged rapes that have strained ties between Washington and Tokyo.

Police issued an arrest warrant yesterday for a serviceman accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a hotel on the island on Monday. Another US marine is in custody for the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl earlier this month.

The incidents have triggered protests and led to an unprecedented curfew on all US personnel and their families. The ban – part of what the military is calling a "period of reflection" – followed unusually strong criticism from Japan's Foreign Affairs minister, Nobutaka Machimura, who said the troops "lacked discipline".

About 42,000 Americans live on Okinawa, which hosts three-quarters of the US military personnel and facilities in Japan, including more than 20,000 marines. The bases, close to Taiwan, China and North Korea, are regarded by Washington and Tokyo as the linchpin of their 50-year-old security alliance. But tensions regularly exist between the troops and Okinawans, who resent being forced to house the US bases.

In 1995, the tensions exploded when troops gang-raped a 12-year-old girl, sparking the biggest anti-US protests in Okinawa's history. Two years ago, a US military worker was convicted of raping two women. Several more soldiers were arrested this month for drink-fuelled incidents, including one who wandered into a local home and fell asleep on a couch.

"People here are really tired of this," said Shoichi Chibana, a local councillor and anti-base activist. "We said we'd had enough 13 years ago after the gang rape, but now we are back to square one. Some people are saying that this could be the beginning of the end. We want these bases gone."

But military sources on the island said that the campaigners were exaggerating the incidents. "Usually, nobody would even pay attention to drunk and disorderly arrests," said one, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The anti-base groups will use this to keep pressing for change."

Tokyo and Washington fear that further protests could wreck a controversial plan to relocate a giant US air station in Ginowan City to a new site off shore. The plan has been the target of a long opposition campaign by local people.

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