Japan seeks US troop deal despite local 'No' vote

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TOKYO, Mar 13 (Reuters) Japan today said it would seek to seal a comprehensive deal with the United States on reorganising American forces in the country even after voters in a local referendum overwhelmingly rejected a plan to increase the US presence at a nearby base.

Voters in the southwest city of Iwakuni, home to a US Marine base, gave a thumbs-down yesterday by a margin of 8-1 to bringing more planes and troops to the facility. The expansion is part of an agreement already reached in talks between Tokyo and Washington.

While the vote is non-binding, the result will complicate plans by the two sides to wrap up negotiations and finalise a comprehensive plan to reorganise the nearly 50,000 US troops in Japan by the end of March.

''We will respect the result of the referendum, but on the other hand, we would like to reach an agreement in the Japan-US negotiations,'' Shinzo Abe, the top government spokesman, said.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Tokyo would aim to meet the end-March deadline, but acknowledged the plan faces stiff opposition from local communities.

''If a referendum were held, the result would be a 'No' vote anywhere. That is the difficulty with issues related to national security,'' he told reporters.

Opposition from local communities concerned about noise, accidents and crime associated with US bases has hindered efforts to finalise the overall plan, part of Washington's global strategy to make its military into a more flexible force.

NATIONAL VS LOCAL INTERESTS More than 43,000 residents voted to reject the plan while just over 5,000 were in favour, according to officials in Iwakuni, 1,000 km west of Tokyo.

The turn-out was almost 59 per cent, slightly above the 50 per cent needed for the referendum to be considered valid, even though the government does not have to abide by it.

The Yomiuri Shimbun daily said central and local governments should hold talks to better meet the interests of residents, but added that the realignment is aimed at dealing with changing security concerns, including North Korea's nuclear development and China's growing military.

''Iwakuni should not cause confusion by uselessly opposing the government,'' the conservative paper said in an editorial.

Situated 550 km from the border between North and South Korea, US Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni would play an important role in any conflict involving the peninsula.

But Iwakuni Mayor Katsusuke Ihara, who called the referendum, said residents had the right to be heard.

''This is the voice of the people,'' Ihara told a private Japanese TV broadcaster late yesterday.

''I have no right to comment on national issues such as security, but it is only natural for the people of Iwakuni to speak out on aspects that affect their lives,'' he said.

The Iwakuni referendum could add momentum to opposition in other communities, including the southern island of Okinawa, home to the bulk of the US forces in Japan.

Okinwa Governor Keiichi Inamine yesterday reiterated his opposition to a plan to relocate a Marine heliport inside the prefecture.

Besides troop movements, Tokyo and Washington are also discussing how much Japan should pay to move 7,000 Marines to Guam from Okinawa.

REUTERS PV BS1000

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