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Rice to face Japan protest on military discipline

TOKYO (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will face complaints about U.S. military discipline when she arrives in Tokyo next week, Japan’s top government spokesman said on Monday, after a string of crimes blamed on Marines in Okinawa.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attends a press availability with President George W. Bush and Tanzania's President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete at the State House in Dar es Salaam February 17, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young

Two Marines were arrested on the southern Japan island at the weekend, one accused of trespassing and the other of drink driving, while the U.S. military sought to assuage anger over the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl by a Marine a week earlier.

That case has rekindled memories of mass rallies against U.S. bases that followed the rape of a 12-year-old girl in 1995.

Rice plans to visit Japan after attending the inauguration of South Korean President-elect Lee Myung-bak in Seoul on Feb. 25.

“We must use the occasion to call for deep reflection,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told reporters on Monday. “This is extremely regrettable. I am very angry.”

A 38-year-old Marine, Tyrone Hadnott, was arrested last Monday on suspicion of raping the girl in a car. He denied rape but admitted forcing her to kiss him, police have said.

Lawmakers on Okinawa have called for a reduction of the U.S. military presence.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda told ruling party executives on Monday he would strongly complain to the United States and demand steps to prevent such crimes in future, Kyodo news agency reported.

A 22-year-old Marine was arrested in Okinawa on Sunday for drink driving, and a 21-year-old on Monday for entering a local resident’s home, police said. Media reports said he was found asleep on the sofa and could not remember how he got there.

“It is quite simply infuriating that they are drinking in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, and committing crimes while people are crying out for stricter discipline,” Machimura, the top government spokesman, told reporters. “I can only call it slack.”

The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Thomas Schieffer, told Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Mitoji Yabunaka on Monday that the incidents were “truly regrettable” and that Washington would work to prevent a recurrence, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Okinawa plays host to the bulk of the 50,000 or so U.S. troops based in Japan. Local residents often complain about the noise, crime and pollution associated with the bases.

“As long as we have the bases, this kind of thing will continue to happen,” one Okinawa resident told public broadcaster NHK. “It’s a question of what the government thinks about that.”

Asked if the series of arrests might affect plans to move the Marines’ Futenma air base from the crowded city of Ginowan to the coastal city of Nago, Machimura said he hoped not.

Last week, the commander of U.S. forces in Japan told reporters the military had set up a task force to review and strengthen programmes to prevent sexual harassment and assault.