CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Faced with an angry crowd of about 3,500 at a special meeting Thursday, the Irabu town assembly decided to withdraw its invitation for the Japan Self-Defense Force to take over the local airport.

Almost half of the residents of Irabu, made up of the islands of Irabu and Shimoji in southern Okinawa prefecture, attended the meeting to oppose a resolution the council passed last week asking the JSDF to make Shimoji Airport a permanent military base, according to a town spokesman.

The airport, with a 9,842-foot runway, once was used as a training facility for commercial airline pilots.

A 2001 Rand Corp. report for the U.S. Air Force suggested Shimoji Airport would be a good location for a U.S. base. It is approximately halfway between Okinawa’s main island and Taiwan. The U.S. Marine Corps now occasionally uses the airport to refuel helicopters on Okinawa-Philippines runs.

The town assembly, citing what it perceived as a growing military threat to the region from China, voted to invite the Self-Defense Force to take over the airport. But bowing to a significant opposition within the prefecture to U.S. military bases, the assembly specifically requested that the U.S. military not use the airport.

About 7,100 people live in Irabu town. During Thursday’s town hall meeting, many said they believed making the airport a JSDF base eventually would lead to a more permanent U.S. military presence, a town official said.

Under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the U.S. military is authorized to use civilian airports for emergencies. “If we did not take any action, the airport would be eventually used by U.S. military,” assembly member Keiei Tomiyama said during the meeting. “Instead of letting that happen, we thought it would be far better to invite the Self-Defense Force and receive financial support from the government.”

His exclamation was greeted with boos, according to local news accounts of the meeting.

The town assembly’s action had been characterized as a way to keep the town independent. Because of Okinawa prefecture’s flagging economy, several towns are merging to cut operating costs; Irabu had been pressured to join with four towns on neighboring Miyako Island.

The Irabu assembly members thought a JSDF base on Shimoji would let them avoid the merger.

However, during an emergency session Friday, they voted to rescind their invitation to the JSDF and merge with the Miyako Island towns.

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