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US, Japan Agree on Relocation of Military Air Base on Okinawa

A major barrier has been cleared for a deal between Japan and the United States on the realignment of American forces in the country. A breakthrough came on the third and final day of negotiations.

The agreement came after the lead U.S. negotiator, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Richard Lawless, postponed his scheduled Wednesday morning departure.

With the talks extended past their deadline, the two allies then reached an agreement about where to relocate the Marine Corps's Futenma air station on Okinawa.

Mr. Lawless told reporters his team agreed to an offer made by the Japan Defense Agency.

"The U.S. side, taking into consideration the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance, has today accepted the most recent JDA proposal and plan of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps air station at Futenma," he said.

That plan will move the aircraft to another Marine base on Okinawa, Camp Schwab. U.S. negotiators originally had pushed instead for construction of a new offshore heliport.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi says he is glad that an agreement has finally been reached.

Mr. Koizumi says it is now important to implement the agreement as soon as possible and to win the understanding and support of local governments on Okinawa.

A major city has grown up around the Futenma air base since U.S. forces occupied it after World War Two. The aircraft at the base will now be in a more rural area.

The deal on Futenma clears the way for a so-called interim agreement on realignment to be signed at talks on Saturday in Washington.

The United States has more than 50,000 troops in Japan - more than half of them on Okinawa island, the poorest and one of the country's smallest prefectures. As the island's population has grown, cities have built up around the military bases, causing friction with the Okinawans, which has been worsened at times when U.S. troops have committed violent crimes or been involved in accidents.

It is not clear whether this agreement will alleviate the bases burden on Okinawa, and it may still face opposition there. The prefecture's governor has insisted that the Futenma base be moved off the island entirely.

There is opposition elsewhere, as well, to the force realignment. The Pentagon wants to transfer several hundred Army troops from the United States to a small base near Tokyo, but politicians near the base say they will fight any such move.

Wednesday's agreement came as Japan's parliament agreed to extend the country's naval mission in the Indian Ocean. The one-year extension of the mission, first approved in late 2001, allows Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force to provide refueling and other support for U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.

The parliament still must decide on extending the mission of nearly 600 non-combat troops in Southern Iraq. Their mandate is due to expire in December.