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Japan minister renews pitch for US forces deal

Written by: Staff

TOKYO, Mar 26: Japan's defence minister, seeking support for a plan to reorganise US troops in the country, met local officials again today as a local daily said Tokyo had given up hope of finalising a deal by an end-March deadline.

Although the March deadline was self-imposed, an extended delay could frustrate Washington, which is trying to transform its military globally into a more flexible force.

As part of such efforts and in a bid to reduce tensions with communities that host US bases, the two allies agreed last October on a sweeping plan to reorganise US military personnel in Japan, who number some 50,000.

But finalising details of the plan has not been easy, due to opposition from local residents concerned about noise, accidents and crime associated with the American troops as well as disagreements over funding.

Seeking to win local support, Defence Minister Fukushiro Nukaga met officials from Okinawa, where resentment toward the US military presence runs especially deep.

The aim of the talks was to patch up differences over a proposed relocation of the US Marines' Futenma air base from a crowded part of Okinawa to an area straddling another base and the coast of Nago, a city on the island.

''We agreed to arrive at a conclusion quickly. There was a certain amount of progress,'' Nukaga was quoted by Kyodo news agency as saying after meeting Nago mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro.

Nukaga, who also met the governor of Okinawa, said he would hold more talks with Shimabukuro this week, Kyodo said.

Okinawa hosts roughly half the US military presence in the country, and the 1995 rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by three US servicemen prompted huge demonstrations there and calls for the removal of the US bases.

TOUGH NEGOTIATIONS Another complication is a rift between Japan and the United States over how much Tokyo should pay towards moving 8,000 US Marines to Guam from Okinawa, a key part of the realignment plan.

Washington has proposed that Japan pay 75 per cent of the estimated billion it will cost to move the Marines to Guam while Japan wants to reduce the cost and provide at least some of the funds in the form of loans.

Japanese and US officials are to hold further talks on the issue in Washington later this week.

''Japan...thinks that 75 per cent would be a bit too heavy of a burden,'' senior ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker Taku Yamasaki said on Fuji TV on Sunday.

Some within the LDP have said the cost should be split fifty-fifty at the most, Yamasaki said.

Due to such differences, Japan has given up on its goal of agreeing with the United States on a finalised report on the realignment plan by the end of March, the Asahi newspaper said, quoting Japanese government sources.

''We would like to aim for an agreement at an early date in April,'' Asahi quoted one source as saying.

US Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer acknowledged that differences remained, but expressed hopes for an agreement.

''What we are involved in now are some very tough negotiations on how we are going to divide the responsibility,'' Schieffer said on NHK network, referring to the cost of moving Marines to Guam.

''I am hopeful they will be resolved sometime soon,'' he added.


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