- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

TOKYO — For the second time in as many weeks, U.S. military officials said they were investigating a case of sexual assault by an American soldier on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, complicating an already delicate diplomatic visit planned here by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The two incidents, one involving a 14-year-old girl, have added fuel to long-simmering protests against U.S. bases on the island, where Okinawans have long complained about crime associated with the American military installations.

With Miss Rice due in Japan on Wednesday after attending the South Korean presidential inauguration of Lee Myung-bak, both Washington and Tokyo scrambled to contain the diplomatic fallout from the latest clash over Okinawa.

U.S. military officials announced Wednesday a virtual lockdown of the 45,000 U.S. personnel, civilian workers and relatives living on or near two major U.S. bases on Okinawa. Christopher R. Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, expressed “great regret over the situation that has developed in Okinawa, my great concern for the feelings of the people of Okinawa, and the fact that this is a very difficult time.”

Japanese government officials, who are often criticized at home for ignoring the concerns of the Okinawan community, quickly denounced the rape reports and urged the U.S. military to strengthen discipline in the ranks.

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda called the incidents “unforgivable,” and said he planned to raise them personally with Miss Rice.

“We must urge the U.S. to reflect seriously on what has happened,” said Nobutaka Machimura, chief Cabinet secretary under Mr. Fukuda.

In the latest incident, Kyodo News agency reported yesterday that U.S. officials had taken a soldier into custody earlier this month over charges that he sexually assaulted a Philippine woman working in Okinawa. Japanese officials on the island said they would seek an arrest warrant.

Last week, Japan reported the arrest of a U.S. Marine on suspicion of raping a 14-year-old Japanese girl. Staff Sgt. Tyrone Hadnott has denied the charges, but admitted forcing the girl to kiss him, his attorneys said.

The sexual assault cases are particularly sensitive, given memories of a 1995 incident in which a 12-year-old Japanese girl was gang-raped by three U.S. servicemen. The incident sparked massive protests, with calls for a reduction or outright removal of U.S. bases from the island.

U.S. military facilities on Okinawa take up about 20 percent of the island’s land. The Defense Department sees the bases as central to the U.S. security strategy in Asia, centering on stability in the western Pacific and maintenance in the forward position of the United States there.

The new cases pose a political problem for the Fukuda government as the Rice visit approaches.

Japanese leaders “were taken by surprise,” said Akikazu Hashimoto, senior research associate at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and a visiting professor at J.F. Oberlin University. “Nobody seems to understand how to deal with it.”

Miss Rice also visits Beijing on her Asian tour. Mr. Hill yesterday tried to quell speculation that she will detour from Seoul to visit North Korea, where the New York Philharmonic has been invited to give an unprecedented concert in Pyongyang.

The South Korean press has speculated about a Rice visit during intense regional talks to end the North’s nuclear weapons programs.

Mr. Hill said North Korean officials have not invited the secretary, who has a “very busy program” in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo.

“She has no other travel plans in the region,” he told Japanese reporters Wednesday. “No, she will not change her mind.”

David R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.

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