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Okinawa city will accept U.S. military heliport

December 24, 1997

TOKYO (AP) _ Defying local public opinion, one Okinawan mayor said Wednesday his city will accept Japan’s plan to build an offshore U.S. military heliport.

The heliport off Nago would handle helicopters from another U.S. base that is to be closed as part of a plan to reduce the heavy military presence on the southern islans of Okinawa.

The approval by Nago Mayor Tetsuya Higa doesn’t completely clear the way for the heliport, but it is seen as helping Okinawa Governor Masahide Ohta work out an agreement with the federal government.

Higa told reporters he has notified Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto that the city will accept the construction.

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

But he said he will retire from political life to take responsibility for dividing the city between those for and against building the heliport.

In a referendum Sunday, 16,639 people, or 53.8 percent, voted to reject the heliport. Only 2,562 gave straightforward approval. Another 11,705 voted ``yes with the expectation that the city will receive economic benefits and a promise to protect from the environment″ from the central government. The vote was not binding.

Under a Japan-U.S. agreement reached last year, 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.

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 they associate with the military.

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

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