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NAHA, Okinawa — Okinawa’s prefectural government has protested Saturday’s use of a civilian airport on Miyako Island as a refueling stop for U.S. military helicopters. It was the first time in almost a decade that the airport has been used to refuel U.S. military helicopters.

Six U.S. Marine CH-46E helicopters and a KC-130 refueling tanker landed on Miyako Island, some 180 miles south of Okinawa, for refueling on their way to the Philippines for the Balikatan ’03 military exercises.

About 100 protesters greeted them in a demonstration organized by a local mayor who had distributed leaflets protesting military use of the civilian airport.

“We feel the front gate to Miyako Island has been kicked in by army boots,” said Hirara Mayor Akira Ishimine. “We cannot forgive this.”

Saturday’s stop-over was the first time since 1994 that U.S. military aircraft had used the Miyako airport. In past years, Philippines-bound aircraft have used civilian airports on Ishigaki, Hateruma and Shimoji islands.

Ryoko Arakaki, director of the Okinawa governor’s office, also visited Marine headquarters on Camp Foster on Monday to file an official complaint. He demanded that military aircraft use civilian airports in the prefecture’s outlying southern islands only in emergencies.

The helicopters, which could not be refueled in the air, landed at 7:13 a.m. and were on their way to the Philippines about 90 minutes later, airport officials said, adding that the refueling did not disrupt civilian flights.

The Marine Corps had advised local officials of the refueling stop in advance.

“We notified them as a courtesy,” said 1st Lt. Amy Malugani, a Marine Corps public affairs officer. “But under the Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, we have the option of using civilian airports for such operations.”

She said the article, part of the status of forces agreement between the two countries, lets U.S. military aircraft use civilian airports throughout Japan.

U.S. Forces Japan told Japanese and Okinawa officials of Saturday’s landing “because it was an operational necessity to accomplish the mission,” Malugani said.

“The Marine Corps continues to make every effort to limit the impact of military training on the daily lives of the Okinawan people,” she said, “while at the same time meeting its obligations and responsibilities to maintain security in the Asia-Pacific Region.

“After examining all possible alternatives and requirements, it was determined that landing the aircraft at Miyako Airport was the least disruptive alternative for refueling.”

The protesters vowed to return when the helicopters do.

Arakaki said he was told the Marine helicopters, based at MCAS Futenma, intend to stop again on Miyako when they return from the Philippines.

Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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