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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Pledges to Return Okinawa Base

TOKYO -- Setting the stage for a visit next week by President Clinton, the United States has agreed to return a major U.S. airfield on Okinawa to local landowners over the next five to seven years.

The agreement, announced live on national television by U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, meets a key demand by Okinawans angry over the U.S. military presence. Sentiment against the American bases on Okinawa has been running high since three U.S servicemen raped a schoolgirl last September, sparking an unprecedented wave of protests.

The airfield to be returned, Futemma Air Base, has long been the target of local complaints because it is in a heavily populated area, taking up more than one-fourth of the Okinawan city of Ginowan.

With huge anti-military rallies often staged nearby, it has become a prime symbol of the conflict on Okinawa.

U.S. and Japanese officials have been working intensively since last fall to find ways to overcome growing resistance on the southern island to keeping U.S. troops there.

Mondale said with the return of the base and other measures, "we believe we will have significantly reduced the irritant and the intrusiveness of our presence in Okinawa."

"We want to be good neighbors," he said.

Other steps are to be announced following weekend meetings by U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry and top Japanese defense officials.

Even with the give-back, though, huge tracts of Okinawa will remain under U.S. military control. Roughly one-fifth of Okinawa Island is reserved for the U.S. military.

The 1,190-acre base, where 100 aircraft and 4,000 troops are stationed, is by no means the largest on Okinawa -- the Air Force's Kadena Air Base, for example, is much bigger -- but it does have some strategic significance as the Marines' only air station on the southern island. Nearly all the Futemma troops will be redeployed elsewhere on Okinawa, officials said.

In Washington, President Clinton said the agreement addressed "legitimate concerns the people of Okinawa have about noise levels, access to land."

Since the end of the postwar U.S. occupation, many American military facilities have been returned to Japanese control. In 1952, there were 2,824 such facilities. Now there are 92, according to the defense department.