Osprey Protesters Block Base Gate in Okinawa
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Demonstrators blocked two entrances to Futenma air station Friday during the third day of protests over the upcoming deployment of Marine Corps Osprey aircraft to Okinawa.
The Marine Corps warned U.S. personnel on the island to avoid Futenma due to the potentially dangerous public rallies, which it said are expected to be "sizable" and to last for the foreseeable future.
The U.S. and Japanese governments approved the deployment of the tilt-rotor aircraft to the air station earlier this month despite deep public concerns over its safety and continuing public protests here.
The first of two Osprey squadrons was scheduled to arrive Friday after completing test flights at the Marine Corps' air station at Iwakuni on the Japanese mainland, but the deployment was delayed due to a typhoon forecast to blow over the two bases during the weekend.
About 100 protestors still donned red – the color of the Osprey opposition – and sat in the road to block access to Futenma's main gate. They chanted and faced down dozens of uniformed Japanese police, who did not attempt to remove them.
"We have no other alternative but to stall military operations at any cost," said Noboru Agena, 70, who was among the group blocking the main gate. "Ospreys are accident-prone. What makes them think they can avoid a catastrophic accident if the aircraft starts operating on this densely populated island?"
U.S. military police kept only a small presence inside Futenma's fencee and at one point worked to untie a tarp that protesters tried to hang from the main gate for shelter from the rain.
The military closed a second gate after protesters blocked it Thursday. Japanese police were overseeing U.S. personnel who were using a third base entrance that had been specially opened during the protest.
Okinawans have opposed the Osprey deployment for the past year, calling the helicopter-plane hybrid dangerous and defective.
The United States and Japan determined the aircraft is safe and approved the Marine Corps plan to replace Futenma's aging fleet of dual-rotor Sea Knight helicopters with two squadrons of Ospreys.
Both governments conducted independent investigations of two recent catastrophic Osprey crashes and determined that pilots were to blame, not the aircraft. In April, two Marines were killed when an Osprey went down during training in Africa. A June crash in Florida injured crew members and destroyed a $78 million aircraft.
The Marine Corps did not say whether the protests Friday disrupted operations at Futenma, while adding that they caused safety concerns for U.S. personnel.
In an email alert Friday, the Marine Corps warned American drivers who are blocked by protestors to stay in their vehicles, lock all doors, roll up windows, turn on hazard lights and call military police if possible.
"Due to dangerous behavior by certain protestors, MCAS Futenma determined that the safest course of action was to temporarily close specific gates around the air station," according to a statement released by Capt. Justin Jacobs, a spokesman for Okinawa bases. "Marine Corps personnel are working closely with the Okinawa prefectural police and local government officials to ensure the unimpeded flow of traffic in and out of the air station."
The service declined to elaborate or provide specifics on any dangerous behavior by protesters. Okinawa police said Friday there had been no arrests or reports of violence.