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Japanese mayor demands withdrawal of US base plan

Written by: Staff
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TOKYO, Mar 16 (Reuters) The mayor of the Japanese city of Iwakuni today demanded the withdrawal of a plan to expand a nearby U.S. Marine base after local voters gave the proposal an overwhelming thumbs-down in a rare referendum last weekend.

The Iwakuni plan was contained in an October deal between Tokyo and Washington on relocating the approximately 50,000 U S troops in Japan, part of U S efforts to transform American forces globally into a more flexible force.

Opposition from Iwakuni and other Japanese communities concerned about noise, accidents and crime associated with the U.S. bases is delaying efforts to finalise the overall realignment plan by the end of March.

''A majority rejected the plan, and the will of the people weighs heavily,'' Iwakuni Mayor Katsusuke Ihara told reporters after meeting a Japanese foreign ministry official in Tokyo.

''We cannot accept a strengthening of the base's functions and we want the plan withdrawn.'' Nearly 90 per cent of those who voted in Sunday's referendum rejected the plan to transfer 57 carrier-based planes and about 1,600 military personnel from Atsugi naval base near Tokyo, where residents complain about flight noise, to the Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, about 600 miles west of Tokyo.

The base, about 350 miles from the tense border between North and South Korea, is already home to more than 3,000 Marines and 57 U.S. aircraft and some 1,500 Japanese military personnel.

The referendum was non-binding and Japanese leaders from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on down have stressed they still intend to wrap up the overall realignment plan this month.

But the 55-year-old Ihara, a soft-spoken former bureaucrat, said local residents' views could not be shrugged off.

''I don't think they can ignore the voice of the local people,'' he told Reuters.

Opposition also continues in Okinawa, reluctant host to nearly 12,000 U.S. Marines, to a plan to relocate a Marine heliport on the southern island. Acceptance of that plan is a prerequisite for implementing a deal to move 7,000 Marines out to Guam. U.S. officials have offered to raise that figure to 8,000.

''The outcome of the closely watched plebiscite was a harsh blow to the government just before the end of the March deadline,'' the Asahi newspaper said in an editorial this week.

''If the government continues to ignore the will of the local community in Iwakuni, putting priority on keeping its promises with the United States, the backlash could spread, causing the situation to spin out of control,'' the newspaper added.

The two nations' governments are also haggling over money.

Washington wants Tokyo to pay about 75 per cent of an estimated 10 billion dollars needed to relocate the Marines to Guam, a U.S. official said.

A U.S. official in Washington told Japanese reporters that the United States was still keen to finalise the plans by the end of March, but added: ''There's a lot of work (to do) between now and then.'' Talks on the topic will be held in Tokyo next week.

REUTERS DKS SND1104

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