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Thursday, October 15, 1998 Published at 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Okinawa death strains US-Japan relations

There is widespread local opposition to US bases in Okinawa

The US Ambassador to Japan has expressed his condolences to the family of an 18-year-old girl who died from injuries sustained in a hit-and-run accident involving a US Marine last week in Okinawa.

Yuki Uema, an 18 year-old high school student, had been in a coma since being knocked off her motorscooter by the serviceman's car a week ago.

She died on Wednesday night.

The man was arrested after the crash on charges of drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident. He remains in custody of Japanese police.

The incident has again strained relations between Japan and the United States after the rape of a Okinawa schoolgirl by three United States servicemen based on the island in 1995.

Action demanded

Following the latest incident the Japanese government has demanded action from the Americans to ensure the incident is not repeated.

Between 50 and 75 per-cent of the 47,000 US troops based in Japan are stationed on Okinawa in bases that take up one fifth of the island.

Until 1972 the island was occupied by the US military and their presence is seen by both governments as an American guarantee of Japanese and East Asian security.

Local residents want the American bases shut down.

Public relations campaign

The death of Yuki Uema has prompted a flurry of apologies from American officials and threatens to undo a massive public relations campaign launched after the 1995 rape case.

US Ambassador Thomas Foley expressed his sadness at the "needless death."

"The embassy will work with the government of Japan to take all appropriate steps to aid the family in this time of crisis and to work to prevent such incidents in the future," a statement said.

The US Marines also issued a statement expressing "regret and sorrow" to the girl's family.

"We know there is little we can say to ease the Uema family's pain and grief but we are very sorry," said the commander US Marine Corps bases in Japan, Lt-General Frank Libutti.

Period of reflection

A Marine Corps spokesman said Marines on Okinawa are spending a half-day in briefings on alcohol use and moral values.

The sessions include a period of reflection for Uema's family, he said.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka described the incident as "intolerable" but said it should not lead to any change in the country's agreement with the US military.

He urged Washington to "improve the standard of conduct of US troops based in Japan."

The incident comes less than a month before President Clinton is due to visit Japan and the BBC's correspondent in Tokyo Juliet Hindell says he will no doubt be expected to offer his apologies as well.

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