Okinawa residents hold protest rally over chopper crash

Okinawa residents protested Tuesday following the crash of a U.S. military helicopter the previous day in the southern Japan prefecture, calling for the suspension of exercises by U.S. forces and the removal of military bases.

About 200 protesters gathered in front of a gate at the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Ginowan following the crash on Monday of the HH-60 rescue helicopter in a mountainous area within the Marines' Camp Hansen, about 2 kilometers from a residential area outside the base.

Ryokichi Chinen, 74, from the town of Chatan in Okinawa, said the U.S. forces "leave people's lives on a back burner and give priority to military training."

Chinen, who survived a ground battle in Okinawa in the final days of World War II in 1945 when he was 6 years old, said training flights by U.S. fighter jets near his home reminded him of a strafing run during the war.

"U.S. military aircraft crashes could occur anytime. The military bases should be removed," he said. Okinawa hosts the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan.

Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima urged the Japanese government Tuesday afternoon to ensure safe operations of U.S. military aircraft and to work to prevent similar incidents. He met with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo.

Atsushi Toma, mayor of Ginoza village, which hosts part of Camp Hansen where the accident occurred, urged the head of the Japanese Defense Ministry's Okinawa branch to try to prevent such accidents and to clarify the cause of the crash.

Hirofumi Takeda, chief of the Okinawa Defense Bureau, told Toma it is "regrettable" that the accident occurred despite Tokyo's request to the United States to ensure the safety of military flight operations.

The Ginoza village assembly unanimously adopted Tuesday a resolution demanding that U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos and U.S. forces in Japan stop helicopter training flights immediately.

"Similar accidents have occurred in the village in the past. We strongly protest at the danger faced by villagers," the resolution said.

Meanwhile, three officials of Ginoza, Okinawa, and two subcontractor workers entered Camp Hansen on Tuesday to examine if the crash had affected a nearby dam, the source of drinking water for the village, after the U.S. forces gave approval for the inspection.

In the crash that occurred at around 4 p.m. Monday, three of the four crew members aboard the helicopter were confirmed safe but one remains unaccounted for, according to Japan's Defense Ministry.

The U.S. Kadena Air Base, where the crashed HH-60 helicopter was based, said Tuesday human remains had been discovered at the crash site but that they have yet to identify the body. The three crew members recovered Monday are all in stable condition and have received appropriate medical care for their injuries, it added.

The 18th Wing Public Affairs of the air base said the Wing leadership has suspended flying activities for Tuesday except for operationally required missions and that flight operations for fixed-wing aircraft are scheduled to resume Wednesday.

It is not yet known when the rescue squadron involving HH-60 helicopters will resume flying, according to the base.

A U.S. military helicopter poured water Tuesday morning over the mountainous area where the chopper crashed and fire trucks and ambulances of the U.S. forces were seen at a gate at Camp Hansen.

In front of the Futenma gate, Okinawa residents have been holding a rally daily to protest at the additional deployment of MV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft to the Futenma base due to the poor safety record of the model.

After the crash of the HH-60 helicopter, U.S. Marines said Monday they would postpone the deployment of 10 more Osprey transport aircraft to the Futenma facility for the time being.

Ginoza Mayor Toma and Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga called for the suspension of the Osprey deployment to the Futenma base.

"Okinawa residents are opposed to the deployment. Can't they make their voices heard unless an accident happens?" said Toma.

Toshiyasu Shiroma, mayor of Haebaru town in Okinawa, said he will go to Tokyo with other municipality heads in the prefecture to protest at the chopper crash and the planned additional Osprey deployment in Futenma at the foreign and defense ministries.

At present, 14 Ospreys are deployed at the Futenma base to replace aging CH-46 helicopters. The 10 remaining aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter and fly like an airplane are temporarily stationed at Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Yamaguchi Gov. Shigetaro Yamamoto told a press conference Tuesday that the western Japan prefecture hosting a U.S. military base believes the chopper crash was "a grave accident."

The governor said it "can't be helped" if the Ospreys stay at the Iwakuni base longer than expected so that the U.S. forces can investigate the cause of the chopper crash.