Mar 23, 11:19 PM EDT

Okinawa orders halt to work related to US base relocation


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TOKYO (AP) -- The governor of the southern Japanese island of Okinawa ordered a Defense Ministry branch to suspend all work in the area where a key U.S. military air base is to be relocated, in a growing confrontation between the island and the central government.

Gov. Takeshi Onaga said Monday that a concrete anchor thrown into the sea for a drilling survey at the site is believed have damaged coral.

It was his first specific action to interfere with the relocation since taking office four months ago. His predecessor's approval of the plan had allowed the Defense Bureau to begin preparing the site in Henoko for the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Onaga told a news conference that the use of concrete blocks had not been authorized. He said the prefecture needs to assess the damage, and demanded the Defense Bureau stop all activity related to the relocation within one week or lose its license for the drilling work, which could put the entire relocation on hold.

The central government's effort to gain Okinawa's understanding of the relocation is "insufficient," he said. "I urge the Defense Bureau to take the order seriously and take a responsible step."

It was not immediately clear whether his order would be followed.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference that officials are currently studying the suspension order, but that the survey should proceed regardless of it. He criticized Onaga for altering the concession that Okinawa had made under its previous leader.

"I don't see any reason why we should halt the operation," Suga said. "This is a law-abiding nation. It is extremely regrettable that (Onaga) submitted the document (ordering the suspension) at this stage."

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the U.S. understanding was that construction "will proceed as planned."

"Construction of the replacement facility is a meaningful result of many years of sustained work between the U.S. and Japan. It's also a critical step toward realizing our shared vision for the realignment of U.S. forces on Okinawa," she told reporters.

The current Futenma base is in a densely populated part of the island, and its relocation is intended to address safety and nuisance concerns. But many people on Okinawa want Futenma moved completely off the island. Opponents also say the construction would endanger the coral reef, tropical fish and other marine life.

The underwater drilling, which had been halted before last November's election in an apparent attempt by the central government to avoid controversy, resumed earlier this month to prepare for the land reclamation needed to build an airstrip over the water from Camp Schwab, another American military base.

The Futenma relocation is part of a broader realignment of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, home to about half of 50,000 American troops based in Japan under a bilateral security treaty. The relocation plan, agreed upon in 1996, has been repeatedly delayed.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government says the plan is crucial to Japan's military alliance with the U.S. amid China's military rise and North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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