SYDNEY • The United States Marine Corps yesterday ended search and rescue efforts for three missing service members after an American military aircraft crashed during an exercise off Australia.
Following the incident involving an MV-22 Osprey - a hybrid helicopter-turboprop with a chequered safety record - Japan's Defence Minister asked Washington to temporarily stop flying them in his country.
Twenty-three personnel were quickly saved following last Saturday's incident off the Australian coast. But three marines remained missing despite an air and sea search.
"Operations have now shifted to recovery efforts. The next of kin for the three missing marines have been notified," US Marines based in Japan said in a statement.
"As the sea state permits, recovery efforts will be conducted to further search, assess and survey the area, in coordination and with assistance from the Australian Defence Force."
Defence Minister Marise Payne said yesterday the Royal Australian Navy was deploying a survey ship, HMAS Melville, as well as a navy dive team to the area to help in the recovery operation.
"Our thoughts are with all those affected by this tragic event and the Australian government stands ready to support the US further in any way we can," she said.
The Marines said the recovery and salvage operations could take several months to complete, while the cause of the crash is being investigated.
The MV-22, which is half-helicopter half-turboprop, has two engines positioned on fixed wingtips that allow it to land and take off vertically. It can travel much faster than a helicopter.
The Japan-based aircraft was in the region as part of the Australian-US joint military exercise Talisman Sabre, which just ended in Queensland state.
Japan's new Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said yesterday that his ministry is seeking more information on the latest accident.
"I believe there are voices of concern in Japan as clear information (about the accident) is not immediately available," Mr Onodera told reporters. "I wish to make a request (not to fly the aircraft) on a voluntary basis."
A squadron of Ospreys is based at the Marines' Futenma base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.
There have been a series of deadly incidents, mostly in the US, involving the aircraft.
In April 2000, 19 marines were killed in an MV-22 crash in the US.
Locals on Okinawa have protested against the deployment of the MV-22 to Futenma, which is sited in the middle of a crowded city.
Last December, a "controlled landing" of the hybrid aircraft just off the coast during a training flight sparked local anger.
The aircraft was in pieces after the incident but no one was killed.
Okinawa campaigners who want the base moved off the island say they cannot tolerate the possibility of accidents, as well as noise and crimes committed by US service members.