A U.S. Air Force helicopter crashed Monday in a mountainous area within a base in Okinawa Prefecture, an accident that could further erode local sentiment toward the U.S. military presence.
Japan's Defense Ministry, informed by the U.S. forces of the crash about 2 kilometers from a residential area outside the base, said three of the four crew members aboard the HH-60 rescue helicopter had been confirmed safe. No other details were provided.
There were no reports of injury to local people due to the accident at the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Hansen, according to Okinawa prefectural police.
The U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa said there were at least four people aboard the Kadena-based helicopter, which was conducting a training mission.
Following the crash, the U.S. Marine Corps decided to temporarily halt the transfer of more MV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft to Okinawa from Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where an additional dozen Ospreys recently arrived from the United States.
"We take safety in our operations very seriously," said a senior official of U.S. Forces Japan. "That is why we conduct extensive investigations to learn what happened so that we can make our operations as absolutely safe as possible."
The Japanese government described the accident as "regrettable" and asked the United States to conduct a thorough investigation and take preventive measures.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos promised to do so and to share its findings.
"This is an extremely important case," Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters.
Asked if the crash would have an impact on Japan's defense policy, Onodera declined to provide a clear answer, saying, "The crash just happened, so a thorough investigation is needed first."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked Toshiro Yonemura, deputy chief Cabinet secretary for crisis management, to look into the accident, seek information from the U.S. authorities and provide accurate responses.
Local police received an emergency phone call at around 4:45 p.m. reporting that smoke was rising from Camp Hansen.
Initial media reports on the crash triggered speculation that it may involve an Osprey tilt-rotor plane, the deployment of which has been opposed in Okinawa due to its checkered safety record.
On Saturday, two Ospreys arrived at Okinawa's Futenma Air Station, part of a second batch to be deployed in Japan.
Monday's accident was the 45th crash by U.S. military aircraft since the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japan from postwar U.S. control, and 17th by helicopters. Okinawa is home to about 74 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
A U.S. Air Force F-15 fighter crashed in waters off Okinawa in May and its pilot was rescued unhurt.
In August 2004, a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crashed at Okinawa International University, leaving three crew members injured.