U.S. envoy offers apology over Okinawa rape case

TOKYO Wed Feb 13, 2008 10:44am EST

1 of 7. A man holds up a sign during a protest against the U.S. military presence in Japan by approximately 20 people near the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo February 13, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Caronna

TOKYO (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador flew to Japan's southern island of Okinawa on Wednesday to apologize for the suspected rape of a 14-year-old girl by a U.S. Marine, as concern simmered over damage to security ties between the close allies.

"It is truly regrettable that an incident like this could happen and my heart goes out to the young girl and her family and all of the people that have been affected by this," Thomas Schieffer told Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima.

"We want to assure you that we will do all we can to cooperate with you and the authorities here to ensure that justice is done in this matter," Schieffer said during the meeting, at which he and the commander of U.S. forces in Japan also promised to take steps to prevent similar crimes.

The 38-year-old Marine, Tyrone Hadnott, based at Camp Courtney on the island, was arrested on Monday on suspicion of raping the 14-year-old girl when the two were in a car on Sunday. He has denied raping the girl but acknowledged forcing her to kiss him, an Okinawa police spokesman said.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has denounced the incident, which has triggered memories of the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen that ignited huge protests on Okinawa, host to the bulk of the nearly 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan.

The episode comes as Tokyo tries to persuade Okinawan residents to accept a plan to move the Marines' Futenma air base from the crowded city of Ginowan to the coastal city of Nago.

"This is totally unforgivable," Nakaima told Schieffer.

"When such incidents occur, the anger of the Okinawan people peaks ... This could have a big impact on the U.S. military, the Okinawan people and various issues regarding the U.S. bases in Okinawa."

STATUS OF FORCES

Earlier in the day, Nakaima called for changes in an agreement on the status of U.S. troops in Japan, and opposition lawmakers met Schieffer to make a similar demand.

Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), U.S. military personnel suspected of crimes need not be handed over to Japanese authorities until they are charged.

But after the 1995 rape, Washington agreed to favorably consider handing over suspects in serious cases such as rape and murder even if they had not been charged. Hadnott has not been charged but was taken into Japanese custody.

Japanese media forecast the incident would hamper efforts to win residents' support for the Futenma transfer, which is part of a broader plan to move about 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

"It would not be an exaggeration to say the anger and mistrust of the Okinawa people against the U.S. military ... is at a peak," said an editorial in the Asahi newspaper.

Two local assemblies on the island adopted a joint protest resolution on Wednesday, Kyodo said, and civic group Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence has sent a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush calling for the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel.

Many Okinawans resent the bases, though others welcome the boost the U.S. military presence provides to the local economy.

Okinawa has long had uneasy ties with the rest of Japan.

Many have not forgotten the bloody 1945 Battle of Okinawa, in which about a third of the population was killed, or the U.S. military occupation of the island from 1945-1972.

(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)