US accepts Japanese apology for downing navy jet

 

THE US President, Mr Bill Clinton, yesterday quickly accepted Japan's "gracious" apology for the accidental downing of a US navy jet. His aides stressed the strong bilateral defence ties that underpin security policy in the Pacific.

"He accepts the gracious expression of regret by the Japanese government," said a White House spokesman, Mr Mike McCurry.

Details of the apology were not immediately available yesterday.

Two US navy crewmen ejected safely when their A-6E Intruder, towing a target for ship to air gunnery practice, was hit by fire from a US made Gatling gun on the Japanese destroyer Yugiri during war games off Hawaii.

"They're okay," Mr Clinton shouted to reporters as he left the White House for a trip to New Jersey.

The Pentagon identified the crewmen as Lieut Commander William Royster, of Kansas City Missouri, the pilot, and Lieut Keith Douglas, of Birmingham, Alabama, the bombardier navigator.

Mr McCurry said Mr Clinton had been informed of the shooting down overnight.

In an apparent move to head off any negative fallout for sensitive US Japanese relations, the head of the US Pacific Fleet, based in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, Admiral Ronald Zlatoper, said he was "most appreciative" of expressions of concern and regret from the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force.

"This immediate and personal contact demonstrates again the close relationship between the United States Navy and the JMSDF," a fleet spokesman, Lieut Jeff Davis, said from Pearl Harbour.

Japanese officials had contacted Admiral Zlatoper, who has responsibility for US naval forces n the Pacific, to express regret and apologise navy officials said.

The incident occurred as Japan and the US are reviewing guidelines for what Washington hopes will be an expanded Japanese role in regional security under the US Japan security treaty.

In a joint declaration signed in Tokyo on April 17th by the visiting US President and the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr Ryutaro Hashimoto, Japan agreed to review its role should a conflict arise that involved US troops in "areas surrounding Japan".

US officials considered the agreement significant for Japan. It had previously maintained that its involvement in any such operation would be a breach of its constitution which allowed only defensive military actions.

The A-6E had been towing a target for ship to air gunnery practice in a six nation military exercise in the Pacific when it was "damaged inadvertently" by gunfire from the Japanese ship, a Pacific fleet statement said.

"Both crew members of the aircraft ejected and were recovered in good condition," it said.

The accident took place at 4:15 pm. local time on Monday, about 730 miles southwest of the Midway Islands, scene of a naval battle between the US and Japan during the second World War.

The exercise, called "Rim of the Pacific" or RIMPAC `96, was a "solid example of a way for Japan and the US to improve their coordination and inter- operability of their forces," the US Pacific Fleet said.