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GINOWAN, Okinawa — Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said Thursday his recommendation for a site to relocate U.S. Marine air operations will require the understanding of Okinawans weary of the military presence in their prefecture.

Without saying where the operations will be sited, his comments were his strongest to date suggesting that he will recommend the operations remain on Okinawa.

“We will draw up a government proposal later this month,” he told reporters, according to a Japanese language transcript of the press conference posted on the Daily Mainichi’s Web site. “Following that, we will ask for the understanding of the U.S. government and the people of Japan too, though perhaps mostly that of Okinawans.”

That may be a tall order. The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, local municipalities and the governor are opposed to any relocation of Marine units from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a new base on Okinawa.

And the Social Democratic Party, a minority member of Hatoyama’s ruling coalition, has threatened to quit the government if an Okinawa site is selected.

The U.S. and Japan agreed in 2006 to close Futenma, located in the middle of urban Ginowan, and relocate Marine air units to a new facility to be built in Henoko, on the island’s rural northeast shore. The air station would be built on Camp Schwab and reclaimed land in Oura Bay.

According to the Mainichi transcript, Hatoyama told reporters there should be plenty of time to choose a final site by his May deadline.

“I think we still have time,” he said. “The deadline is the end of May. Until then, we will seek a solution in a form so that it will be acceptable for the United States, as well as for people of Japan, I suppose mainly Okinawans.”

He said he would visit the island at some point to discuss the options with Okinawa officials.

During the campaign for Lower House elections last summer, Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan promised to scrap the Futenma relocation plan and move the Marine air units off Okinawa. After he took office in September, he started a review of the 2006 agreement.

According to members of the review panel, the two leading proposals are to either build a new facility on reclaimed land between the Navy’s White Beach port and nearby Tsuken Island, or construct a landlocked facility on another part of Camp Schwab.

The two alternative sites are expected to be discussed when Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meet in Canada later this month for an economic summit.

U.S. officials have maintained the coastal Henoko site is the only viable option.

“Our position remains that in terms of both the security arrangements needed to protect Japan and to limit the impact of bases on local communities, particularly on Okinawa, that the realignment road map presents the best way forward,” Michael Schiffer, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia, told a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington on Wednesday.

He said the troops on Okinawa are the only ground forces between Hawaii and India that the U.S. can quickly deploy for regional security or humanitarian crises, according to an Agence France-Presse report of the meeting.

Schiffer emphasized that the Futenma relocation project is the key to a broader realignment of troops in Japan. The 2006 agreement calls for transferring more than 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and closing most of the U.S. base property south of Kadena Air Base.

Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.

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