Aug 14, 11:21 PM EDT

US military takes 1st step in relocation in Japan


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TOKYO (AP) -- Workers began placing buoys off Okinawa as part of a long-planned and highly contentious relocation of an American military base, which a U.S. official said Thursday was a critical step toward the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.

The buoys define the area of construction on a facility in Henoko Bay that will house the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which will be relocated from a crowded residential area of Okinawa.

Okinawa houses the majority of U.S. troops in Japan. Protests against the bases have been going on for decades. Aircraft noise, crashes and crime are among the frequent complaints.

"This is a meaningful result of many years of sustained work between the United States and Japan," said Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokeswoman in Washington.

"It's a critical step toward realizing our shared vision for the realignment of U.S. forces on Okinawa," Harf said.

The relocation of the Marine air station will reduce U.S. military footprint in the most populated part of Okinawa and enable the return of significant land back to the people of Okinawa, "while sustaining U.S. military capability, vital to the peace and security of the region," she said.

The Japanese Defense Ministry confirmed the placing of buoys began Thursday but declined to give details, citing security concerns. Public broadcaster NHK showed protesters on boats being blocked by patrol boats, and others holding up signs outside the U.S. base saying "No new base."

Opponents say majority of people are opposed to the construction, which some say would endanger the coral reef, tropical fish and other ocean life.

Land reclamation is needed for an airstrip to be built over the water from Camp Schwab, a U.S. military base.

Japanese media reports said the drilling could start as early as this weekend. The Defense Ministry declined comment.

Many Okinawans want the U.S. off the island entirely, but public opinion is divided with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima backing the plan.

The Marines' relocation to Henoko is part of a broader plan to consolidate and reduce the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. Previous efforts to implement the move have stalled. The U.S. and Japan agreed on the plan in 1996.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly said the plan is important for the crucial alliance with the U.S. amid territorial disputes with China and the nuclear threat from North Korea.

But Susumu Inamine, the mayor of Nago, where Henoko is located, noted his reelection earlier this year underlines the people's opposition to the plan.

He said assessments on environmental damage were not thorough enough, and accused the government of forcing the issue.

"Pushing forward with this tramples on the human rights of the people, and the rich diverse natural life of this region. This is no longer about democracy," Inamine said in a statement.

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