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YOMITAN, Okinawa — A U.S. soldier suspected of driving a car involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident was questioned by Okinawa police for seven hours this week, U.S. Army officials confirmed Thursday.

The sergeant, whose name has not been released, is in the custody of military authorities on Torii Station.

The hit-and-run incident threatens to cloud President Barack Obama’s first trip to Asia this weekend because it is resurrecting longstanding disputes between U.S. and Japanese officials over which nation should have custody of American servicemembers suspected of committing off-base crimes.

Last week, a group of Japanese governors whose prefectures host U.S. military bases were in Washington to lobby for revisions to the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement that would give Japan greater control over military suspects. And Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who is to meet with Obama during the president’s visit, called for turning the soldier over to Okinawa police earlier this week.

Okinawa police have not asked for full custody of the suspect, and no charges had been filed as of Thursday evening, officials said.

Earlier in the week, Col. James E. Woodard, 10th Support Group commander, told Yomitan Mayor Keizo Yasuda that he would consider transferring custody if requested by police.

“We must follow the procedures as outlined in the SOFA,” he said, according to a U.S. Forces Japan news release Wednesday. “We will expediently cooperate, but we must follow the rules.”

Under the Status of Forces Agreement, servicemembers suspected of committing crimes under Japanese law remain in the custody of military authorities until they are indicted in a Japanese court. The only exception is when Japanese police arrest the servicemembers outside the bases.

After a spate of high-profile crimes on Okinawa in 1995, the two countries agreed that the U.S. may consider early transfer of suspects in the case of heinous crimes, such as murder, rape or arson.

The hit-and-run investigation is being treated as a case of vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident, according to news reports.

“Any criminal matters that may arise as a result of this will be handled in accordance with established procedures under the status of forces agreement,” the USFJ release stated.

The soldier –was driving a car registered to another servicemember who is not currently on the island, according to an Army official.

The body of the victim, identified as Masakazu Hokama, a 66-year-old resident of Yomitan, was found along a two-lane road near the front gate to Torii Station.

The car had front-end damage and a broken windshield. Investigators tested hair and blood samples from the windshield and found them to match the victim’s, an Okinawa Prefectural Police spokesman said Thursday.

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.
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