As expected, U.S. Marine aircraft were met by protesters Wednesday when they landed on Shimoji Island for refueling en route to render disaster relief for the storm-ravaged Philippines.

About 60 protesters, mostly labor union members and Miyako Island group residents, gathered outside the fences of an airfield on Shimoji Island when three CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters and one KC-130 air refueler landed the airport at 8 a.m.

Shimoji, connected to Irabu Island by a bridge, is part of the Okinawa prefecture’s Miyako Island group, some 200 miles south of Okinawa. The island has a large civilian airport used to train commercial airline pilots.

Protesters began to gather outside the airport’s fence line a few hours before the first helicopter and KC-130 landed for refueling, according to Japanese media reports. They unfurled a yellow banner emblazoned with the English words, “No Military Forces” and shouted, “No military use of the airport! Get out of Miyako!”

The protesters are opposed to the occasional use of the airport by U.S. military aircraft coming and going to military exercises in the Philippines. They said even though the most recent use is for a humanitarian mission, they still objected.

“They use the airport on the pretext of humanitarian assistance for typhoon victims, but their true intent is to make a way for them to use the airport on regular basis,” Masao Oroku, secretary general of the Miyako District Labor Union, told reporters.

Akira Ishimine, mayor of Hirara, a small city on nearby Miyako Island, said he “had a growing sense of crisis that the use of the airport by the military this time is a part of their plan for future use of the airport on regular basis.”

Mayor Ken Hamagawa of Irabu said he had mixed feelings about the refueling stops. “I naturally oppose the use of the airport for military purposes,” he said. “But this time, for the purpose of humanitarian assistance it is hard for us to flatly refuse them.”

Marines expressed understanding of the islanders’ concerns but stressed the necessity of stopping at the island en route to the Philippines.

“Third Marine Expeditionary Brigade aircraft, equipment and personnel from Okinawa must transit by way of Shimoji Island, which is located about halfway between Okinawa and the Philippine islands, in support of this much-needed disaster relief mission,” said 2nd Lt. Eric Tausch of the Marine Consolidated Public Affairs Office.

“We thank the Okinawan people for their patience, support and compassion as we provide assistance to the Philippine people in their time of need,” he added.

Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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