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Okinawa Will Accept U.S. Heliport

December 24, 1997

TOKYO (AP) _ An Okinawan city will accept the central government’s plan to build an offshore U.S. military heliport even though more than half its voters rejected a referendum on the project, the city’s mayor said today.

The heliport off Nago city would handle helicopters from a U.S. base to be closed as part of a plan to reduce the heavy military presence on the southern Japanese island, a major battlefield in World War II.

Okinawans have long objected to the noise and inconvenience of the U.S. bases that take up about 20 percent of their small island, as well as to the crime and loss of autonomy they associate with the U.S. military presence.

Tensions escalated in 1995, when a 12-year-old Okinawan girl was raped by three U.S. servicemen.

More than 53 percent of voters rejected the heliport in the referendum Sunday. The outcome was not binding, and Nago Mayor Tetsuya Higa said he has notified Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto that the city will accept the heliport.

``I think I made a better decision, after seriously considering the result of the referendum,″ Higa was quoted as saying by Kyodo News agency.

His approval doesn’t completely clear the way for the heliport, but should help Okinawa Governor Masahide Ohta work out an agreement with the central government.

Higa said he will retire from political life to take responsibility for dividing the city between those for and against the heliport. Support has been based largely on economic benefits expected from the central government in return for accepting the deal.

Ohta said he will meet with Hashimoto in mid-January after the issue is discussed by the Okinawa prefectural government.

Under a Japan-U.S. agreement reached last year to reduce the American military presence on Okinawa, the Futenma Air Station is to be closed in five to seven years. The United States wants to build the heliport off the Marines’ Camp Schwab in Nago to handle helicopters from Futenma.

Two-thirds of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan are based on Okinawa.

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