CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — About 450 residents gathered Sunday at Henoko to mark the one-year anniversary of their sit-in protesting construction of a new U.S. Marine base.

A spokesman said the group pledges to maintain its vigil until the project, an offshore airport to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, is abandoned. A small group of protesters has camped out at the port; other protesters have used small boats aimed at blocking an environmental seabed survey in the area planned for the airport. They represent environmental and anti-military groups.

“Until the government gives up … we will continue to sit here and oppose … the project,” said Hiroshi Ashitomi, one of the organizers, according to Japanese press accounts of the event.

The protesters accused Japan’s government of refusing to discontinue the project despite mounting opposition. The Henoko site was selected in accord with a 1996 U.S.-Japanese agreement to reduce by 21 percent the Okinawa land U.S. forces use. U.S. bases now cover about a fifth of the island.

Part of the plan was to close MCAS Futenma in urban Ginowan and move its Marine air operations elsewhere, but difficulty finding an alternate site delayed the initial 2003 closing date. Now Japanese officials say the Henoko project will take more than 10 years to complete.

“It is high time for the government to stop using their force to push through this plan,” said Takuma Higashionna of Dugong Network Okinawa. The offshore Henoko area is said to be the northernmost feeding grounds of dugong, an endangered sea manatee. “The DFAB (the Defense Facilities Administration local bureau) should cool their heads.”

Said Keiko Itokazu, a member of the House of Councilors, “We must never allow them to change our beautiful ocean into a military base.”

DFAB officials told Stripes the sit-in effectively has stalled the project. “We have been urging [the protesters] to use moderation and not to interfere with the survey activities,” Masanori Nishi, Defense Facilities Administration Naha Bureau director, said recently. “We must deal with the issue properly while assessing the conditions at the site, including weather, to ensure safe working environment.”

Another DFAB official said, “We attempted to start the work on April 19 last year. However, we were met by protests. On Sept. 9, the agency began work in the water and in November, we started to set up platforms.

“Since then, however, no progress has been made due to protest activities.”

Marine Corps officials on Okinawa routinely have declined to comment on the Henoko issue, noting that the Marines are involved in neither the project’s site selection nor construction.

“The Marine Corps is ready to move to a suitable replacement facility that meets its operational requirements,” 1st Lt. Eric Tausch has said in the past.

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