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The BBC's Charles Scanlon in Okinawa
"The police say they were seen escaping in a car after the rape took place"
 real 28k

Saturday, 30 June, 2001, 00:41 GMT 01:41 UK
Japan rape report worries US
Demonstrators hold hands in a human chain around a US airbase
Many Okinawans resent the US military presence
The United States says it is taking reports that American soldiers may have been involved in the rape of a woman on the Japanese island of Okinawa "very seriously".

Police in Okinawa have been questioning US servicemen in connection with the alleged rape, which reportedly took place early on Friday in an area frequented by the US military.

map of Okinawa
The incident was reported on the day Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi flew to the US for a crucial summit with President George Bush. They are expected to discuss a reduction of the US military presence in the area.

Okinawa,1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) southwest of Tokyo, is home to 47,000 US troops and their presence has become increasingly controversial, with a series of highly publicised crimes in recent years.

US military co-operation

"As you know, we take such incidents very seriously," US State Department spokesman Phil Reeker told reporters.

"If a crime has occurred, US military officials will work with local authorities to ensure the person responsible is held accountable for his actions," Mr Reeker said.

Junichiro Koizumi
Mr Koizumi favours close US military ties
At present the police are refusing to confirm whether the suspects are US servicemen, saying only that the men appeared to be "foreign".

But a witness said the assailants appeared to be American and had fled the car park, in the central Okinawan town of Chatan, in a car with special number plates used by US forces personnel.

Suspect

The woman was reportedly raped by one man and surrounded by several others.

AP news agency quoted Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Commander Jeff Davis as saying that an Air Force technical sergeant assigned to the 353rd Special Operations Group at the Kadena Air Base was suspected.

He said the man - who has been released without charge - and the 20-year-old victim had been drinking together before the incident.

As many as seven other American service personnel from the Air Force and Marines were also questioned by Okinawan police, most as possible witnesses, Mr Davies said.

Local fury

For some local Okinawans, the attack only served to reinforce their feeling that the forces are not welcome on the island.

"These incidents happen again and again. There seems to be no end to crimes against Okinawans," said Hagu Kido, a 25-year-old computer salesman who works near Kadena.

In the past the people of Okinawa have reacted with fury to crimes committed by US forces, whose presence dominates the island.

Big anti-American rallies took place in 1995 after three marines raped a 12-year-old girl.

Before leaving for the US, the Japanese prime minister said: "We must first confirm the report. If it is true, such a crime would hurt residents' feelings" in Okinawa".

Mr Koizumi is in favour of close military ties with the United States, but he is under pressure to push for a reduction in the American military presence in Okinawa.

The United States says the Okinawa bases, within striking distance of China and the Korean Peninsula, are essential for its security strategy in Asia and the Pacific.

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See also:

06 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Okinawa: Island of resentment
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Tough agenda for Japan-US summit
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Okinawa marine sought on arson charges
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Okinawa curfew after sex charges
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