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Ex-Okinawa mayor's death could delay US base deal

Written by: Staff

Tokyo, Mar 28: The death of the former mayor of a city on Okinawa could slow down efforts to reach an agreement on relocating a US Marine base on the southern Japanese island by an end-March deadline, Japanese officials said today.

The death of former Nago City Mayor Tateo Kishimoto, 62, yesterday comes ahead of a planned meeting between his successor and Defence Minister Fukushiro Nukaga to try to clinch a deal on relocating the U.S. Marines Futenma air base from a crowded part of Okinawa to an area straddling another base and the coast of Nago.

The Futenma relocation was agreed upon by the United States and Japan last October as a key element of a sweeping reorganisation of America's approximately 50,000 troops in Japan.

But finalising the details has been hampered by local residents' opposition in Okinawa, host to almost half the U.S.

military personnel in the country, and elsewhere due to concerns about noise, crime and accidents associated with the U.S. bases.

Nukaga told reporters that he had been set to meet incumbent Nago Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro this week, but that it was unclear now whether those talks would go ahead as planned.

''I don't know,'' he told reporters when asked if it would be difficult to meet Shimabukuro this week. ''I would like to consult and then think about it,'' he added, suggesting local Okinawa officials might be busy attending services for Kishimoto.

U.S. and Japanese officials, meanwhile, are to meet on Thursday and Friday in Washington to try to conclude a deal to implement the October agreement.

The two central governments are divided over how much Tokyo should pay towards moving 8,000 Marines from Okinawa, another core element of the reorganisation plan.

Washington has proposed that Japan pay 75 percent of the billion it estimates is needed to move the Marines to the U.S.

territory of Guam. Japan, suffering from a huge public debt, wants to reduce the total cost as well as its share of the burden and provide at least some of the funds in the form of loans.

''I wonder if we will get to the point of (agreeing on) the division of costs,'' Foreign Minister Taro Aso told reporters.

''Mr. Kishimoto has passed away and I feel that this will temporarily dampen the atmosphere.'' A prolonged delay in finalising the agreement could irritate the United States, which is engaged in an effort to transform its military globally into a more flexible force.


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