TOKYO Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced deep regret on Wednesday for a U.S. Marine's alleged rape of a 14-year-old Japanese girl, a case that has sparked outrage and official condemnation in Japan.
"We just regret deeply that this happened," Rice told reporters at the start of a one-day trip to Japan. "(It) is very hard to see something like this happen and it's especially hard because it involves a young girl."
A 38-year-old Marine, Tyrone Hadnott, has been arrested on suspicion of raping the girl in a car on Okinawa island, where the bulk of the 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan are based. Police have said he denied rape but admitted forcing her to kiss him.
The incident has revived bitter memories of the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl on the southern Japanese island in 1995, which sparked huge protests against U.S. bases and raised doubts about the bilateral security alliance.
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has called the latest incident "unforgivable" and demanded tighter military discipline, but both the U.S. and Japanese governments have moved swiftly to try to limit the diplomatic fallout.
Asked if the case might harm the U.S.-Japanese alliance, Rice replied: "We certainly hope that there will not be lasting effects. It's a long-standing and strong alliance."
Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura also stressed the importance of the relationship, saying "although we have these problems, thanks to the efforts of both sides ... Japan-U.S. security cooperation has continued to progress".
Rice later told reporters she had begun her meeting with Komura by expressing regret for "the terrible incident that happened on Okinawa".
In a separate meeting, Japan's Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba underlined the gravity of the incident, which comes amid a struggle to implement a plan lightening the burden of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa following the 1995 incident.
"Okinawa is very important, not only for Japan, but for the United States," a ministry official quoted Ishiba as telling Rice. "From that point of view, the incident in Okinawa is very unfortunate, and it is also unfortunate for the bilateral alliance between our countries."
He added that it was important for the two governments to take action to improve the situation in a visible way.
Rice visited Japan after attending the inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul on Monday and discussing how to end North Korea's nuclear programs with Chinese officials in Beijing on Tuesday.
(Writing by Arshad Mohammed and Isabel Reynolds; Editing by Sugita Katyal)