Japan mayor pleads against relocation of US airbase to Nago city

TOKYO (AFP) - A Japanese mayor whose city is set to be the site of a relocated US military base pleaded on Thursday for the plan to be dropped, as Tokyo and Washington push ahead with the move.

Mr Susumu Inamine, who has just been re-elected on a fiercely anti-base platform as the mayor of Nago, Okinawa, said the burden of hosting the 47,000 United States personnel based in Japan should be spread across the country.

"For 68 years since the end of the World War II, Okinawa, as the frontline prefecture of the Japan-US alliance, has been forced" to bear the bulk of responsibility, including the accidents and crimes that come with having the bases, he told reporters in Tokyo.

"This situation reflects (the Japanese government's) discrimination against Okinawa," he said.

His call came as the long-stalled plan to move the US Marines' Futenma Air Station from a crowded urban area of Okinawa to sparsely populated Nago bay has begun to bear fruit, with an agreement in principle from the governor of the prefecture.

Japan and the United States originally agreed on the plan in 1996, but the deal never went ahead because of opposition from Okinawan residents, who were demanding the base be moved out of Okinawa altogether.

But in December, the prefectural government consented to a landfill scheme that will enable new facilities to be built in Nago, in exchange for a huge development package to boost a local economy that is over-reliant on tourism.

Mr Inamine said he had discussed his opposition to the move during a meeting with new US ambassador Caroline Kennedy on the island.

"I did most of the talking and explained to her the issue related to nature, the environment, accidents and crimes. She seemed to be particularly interested in the environmental issues," Mr Inamine said.

Ms Kennedy met also with local governor Hirokazu Nakaima but reportedly avoided discussing details of the base realignment.

Mr Inamine fended off an election challenge last month from a candidate who supported the move and who received support from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which had offered a lavish spending plan if their man had won.

Mr Inamine does not have power to stop the base construction, although the city in theory can refuse the use of local roads and other facilities necessary for building works.

He said he was hoping to persuade the Japanese public to back his objections.

"If they (Japanese public) acknowledge the issue as their own, not just an Okinawan local issue, then I think we can move the government," he said.

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