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TOKYO — Japanese government officials agreed to pay about $2.74 million to a group of former employees who suffered from lung disease after working on ships containing asbestos at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, an attorney involved in the case said.

The government will pay each of the 20 workers about $128,000 and will award about $229,000 to the family of a worker who died last year, according to Takeshi Furukawa, the plaintiffs’ attorney. One plaintiff will not receive compensation since the 10-year statute of limitations had expired.

The 22 workers are one of the three groups Furukawa represents. The workers claimed compensation for contracting lung problems after working at shipyards. They worked at Yokosuka between 1946 and 1997, handling asbestos-filled materials. They said they were not provided with protection such as masks.

“It is great that an early resolution will be reached in terms of victims’ relief,” a Defense Facilities Administration Agency spokesman said. DFAA handles most issues related to U.S. bases such as managing Japanese personnel.

The settlement sets a hopeful prospect for reaching an early settlement in the third lawsuit, Furukawa said. The third lawsuit, involving 15 plaintiffs, was filed July 2003 and is still pending.

The first group of 17 former workers who filed a lawsuit in 1999 were awarded $230 million yen (about $2.1 million). However, on appeal, the Tokyo High Court overturned part of the ruling and rejected $727,000, saying statute of limitations had expired for five plaintiffs.

The Japanese and U.S. governments are in negotiations over the issue, according to Japanese officials. Japan claims that the U.S. is responsible for reimbursing Japan for the money because of provisions in a contract between the two nations regarding Japanese workers at U.S. bases. According to Japanese sources, the U.S. position was that it was not responsible to reimburse Japan.

Maj. James Bell, a U.S. Forces Japan spokesman, said USFJ would not comment either on the settlement or any negotiations on reimbursement taking place between the United States and Japan. Bell said it was a long-standing policy for USFJ to refuse to comment on pending legal matters or negotiations. Bell would not confirm whether, in fact, negotiations with Japan on reimbursement were taking place.

—Nancy Montgomery contributed to this report.

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