Okinawa bases to be cut, report says

 

THE US PRESIDENT, Mr Bill Clinton, will cut US forces on the Japanese island of Okinawa by 10 per cent and close some bases there to clear the way for a new security pact with Japan, a newspaper chain reported yesterday.

A White House spokesman, Mr Michael McCurry, said Washington hoped to have an agreement on US forces in Okinawa before President Clinton arrives in Tokyo next Tuesday for a two day official visit.

However, saying discussions were still taking place, he would not comment on the report published yesterday by the Hearst Newspapers and carried in yesterday's Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes, the newspaper of the US

armed forces.

"We have indicated for some time that we would like issues related to the status of forces on Okinawa to be dealt with as appropriate prior to the President's arrival. We'll see if that's possible," said Mr McCurry.

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said overall US troop levels in Japan were expected to remain steady but no number had yet been settled on US troops in Okinawa.

A deal would be an important step toward dispelling a major security headache for the US in a region that has suddenly seen tensions soar. Anger at the US military presence in Okinawa has been running high since the rape last December of a 12 year old schoolgirl by three soldiers, sparking demands for a US withdrawal by Okinawa Governor Masahide Ota.

The potential for trouble in the region was underscored in recent days by a round of sabre rattling - first by China in the Taiwan Strait and then on the Korean peninsula where North Korean troops were accused of deliberately violating the 1953 Korean armistice agreement.

"Essentially what we're trying to do is work toward an agreement that protects our security interests in the region and our role and also protects our troop levels in Japan," an unnamed White House official said. "We expect to maintain troop levels at or about what they are now.

New troop arrangements were expected to be concluded by the US Defence Secretary, Mr William Perry, who leaves on Saturday, for Tokyo and Seoul, the capital of South Korea, a step ahead of President Clinton.

There are now 45,000 US troops in Japan, 28,800 of them on Okinawa. The Hearst story quoted a White House official as saying the US troop reduction on Okinawa would be "in the neighbourhood of 10 per cent".

The official also said some of the 40 military installations on the island would be closed to reduce the impact of the US military.

In Tokyo, a senior Japanese defence official was quoted as saying the US military is considering turning over 43 square miles of land for civilian use.

The Hearst report said since overall US troop levels in Japan would remain the same under the new security pact, units would be moved from Okinawa to other parts of Japan.