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Helicopter Crash Fuels Outrage at US Military Presence in Okinawa

Incident comes as US seeks to relocate one of the island's sprawling bases over the objection of local residents

- Sarah Lazare, staff writer

(Photo: AP)A U.S. military helicopter crash in Okinawa on Monday has fueled already heightened opposition by residents in the local community where outrage has been ongoing over plans to relocate an existing US base from one area of the island to another.

As residents on the Japanese island re-energized their protest in the wake of the crash, the country's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera demanded Tuesday that all HH-60 helicopter flights immediately halt until a full investigation of the crash is carried out.

The helicopter, from the US-run Kadena Air Base, crashed in Ginoza, Okinawa while on a training mission, leaving one military personnel unaccounted for and three survivors. Residents were specifically concerned that the crash site was in close proximity to the area's drinking water supply.

The incident quickly spurred local outrage among residents furious at pollution and danger from US military operations, with 200 protesting at the gate to the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Ginowan Tuesday and demanding the sprawling military bases be shuttered.

"[US forces] leave people's lives on a back burner and give priority to military training," Ryokichi Chinen, 74, from the town of Chatan in Okinawa, told the Global Post. "U.S. military aircraft crashes could occur anytime. The military bases should be removed."

Going further than the national government, local officials pledged to curb U.S. military power on the island, with Ginoza's village assembly voting unanimously Tuesday to pass a resolution demanding an immediate halt to helicopter training flights, the Global Post reports.

“There are almost daily training exercises by U.S. military helicopters in our village,” Atsushi Toma—mayor of Ginoza where the crash occurred—told the Asahi Shimbun. “This just brings to harsh reality the fact that we live very close to danger. I will deal with the U.S. military on this matter with a firm attitude."

The heightened protest comes as the U.S. military seeks to relocate the sprawling Futenma base to the Henoko district of Nago, a move that has slowed due to the fierce opposition of local residents who want the base nowhere near them.

The U.S. government has submitted an application for relocation to the Okinawa government, but the rising protests—and official anger—in the wake of the chopper crash are likely to stall the plan even further.

A majority of Japan's U.S. military bases, and half of the 50,000 U.S. troops in the country, are located in Okinawa, an island that has seen decades of resistance to U.S. military bases, with residents criticizing the presence of US soldiers, industrial pollution, sexual assaults, and the overall danger of neighboring a military installation.

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