Monday, November 29, 1999

Protesters form `human chain` at U.S. base in Japan

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Some 17,000 people formed a 'human chain' around a U.S. airbase on Okinawa on Sunday to demand the prime minister keep a campaign pledge to move the controversial facility off the Japanese island, Kyodo news agency reported.The protest, the latest by angry residents of the southern Japanese island that is host to about half the U.S. forces in the country, comes just days before an expected visit to Tokyo by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.Voter perceptions that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has mishandled a feud over the Futenma airbase, along with doubts over political funding scandals, have eroded the government's ratings ahead of a mid-year election the ruling Democratic Party needs to win to avoid policy paralysis.The dispute has also frayed ties with key ally Washington.Hatoyama had pledged to resolve the dispute by the end of this month, but the Sankei newspaper reported on Saturday that the government had abandoned the deadline and would now seek to settle the matter around November, when U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Japan for an Asia-Pacific leaders summit.Opposition parties are demanding Hatoyama resign if he fails to meet the deadline, while cabinet ministers say the government should keep trying to reach a deal even after the deadline."I think the prime minister's words carry great weight. He kept saying 'the end of May' and vowed to stake his job," Jiro Kawasaki, in charge of parliamentary affairs for the opposition Liberal Democrats, said on NHK television."If he cannot carry this out, he should take responsibility."During the campaign that swept the Democrats to power last year, Hatoyama raised hopes Futenma could be shifted off Okinawa, despite a 2006 deal with Washington to move the facility from a crowded city to a less populous site on the island.But with his self-imposed end of May deadline for settling the feud looming, Hatoyama shifted gears, saying he had come to realise some Marines must stay on the island to deter threats.Last month, tens of thousands of Okinawans rallied to demand the premier keep his promise. Residents of tiny Tokunoshima island are also generally opposed to Hatoyama's proposal to shift some of Futenma's functions there, while environmentalists have criticised his plan to build a runway on piles in the pristine waters off Nago City in northern Okinawa.U.S. officials have repeatedly said they think the 2006 agreement is the best option, while expressing willingness to talk about other plans.(Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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