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FUTENMA MARINE CORPS AIR STATION, Okinawa — A small band of anti-base activists gathered in front of the main gate here Saturday to protest the existence of this U.S. facility in the heart of urban Ginowan.

According to a base-closure plan signed by the United States and Japan in 1996, Futenma was to be closed by now, replaced by a new airport in rural northeast Okinawa. Saturday marked the seventh anniversary of the announcement, made by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and former U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale, that Futenma MCAS would be closed within seven years after an alternate site for the air station was located.

But delays in finding an alternate site — and opposition by former Gov. Masahide Ota — made the deadline impossible. A site for the new base was not approved until 1999, and an environmental assessment has just begun.

Defense Facilities Administration Agency officials say it could be a decade before construction is complete and Futenma MCAS closed.

Not soon enough, about 70 protesters declared in Saturday night’s brief rally.

“The time is up,” the protesters chanted outside the closed gate. “This is our land. Open the gate as you have promised us.”

“It’s time for you to vacate this base,” the protesters shouted. “The return was agreed by the governments.”

Two women handed a gate guard a letter of protest addressed to the base commander. It called for the station’s immediate return to Okinawa.

Moving the Marine air operations has been a controversial issue since it was recommended by Okinawa’s Special Action Committee, a bilateral commission set up to address a growing anti-base movement. Those feelings sprang from the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three U.S. servicemen on Labor Day 1995.

Ota objected to any relocation on Okinawa. It was not until he was defeated by Gov. Keiichi Inamine in 1998 that the plans to move the base to the waters off Okinawa’s northeast shore went forward.

Environmentalists warn construction of the base, which will be linked by a causeway to the Marines’ Camp Schwab, will endanger the island’s fragile coral reef system and the small group of saltwater manatees that make the warm waters its home.

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