Japan asks U.S. to suspend chopper flights

Japan has asked the United States to suspend flights of the U.S. military's HH-60 helicopters until the cause of Monday's crash of the chopper in Okinawa is determined and preventive measures are taken, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Tuesday.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference that the accident is "regrettable" and called on the U.S. military to put utmost priority on the safety of Okinawa people.

An HH-60 rescue helicopter crashed Monday in a mountainous area within the premises of a U.S. military base in Okinawa, about 2 kilometers away from the nearest residential area. The Defense Ministry said three of the four crew members had been confirmed safe, but gave no other details.

Coming at a sensitive time, the accident prompted the U.S. military to put off the transfer of additional MV-22 Osprey aircraft from the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture to the Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, home to the bulk of U.S. bases in Japan.

The Japanese government, meanwhile, is apparently concerned that the accident will further stir local opposition to the planned relocation of the Futenma base within the prefecture.

Tokyo has been waiting for Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima to make a decision on whether to accept an application to reclaim land in coastal waters in Nago for the Futenma relocation, based on a bilateral agreement. Okinawa has long insisted that the base should be moved out of the prefecture.