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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Ahead of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to Japan, a senior Pentagon official suggested the U.S. would consider moving planned runways at Camp Schwab on Okinawa 50 yards farther offshore if the Japanese government were to raise the possibility.

“Should the government of Japan propose that,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity “... we will certainly consider it within the framework of the agreement that we have.”

Tokyo and Okinawa leaders welcomed the news Monday as an indicator Washington is willing to show flexibility on the 2006 bilateral agreement that includes the move to Schwab.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano believes both governments will take a flexible approach to settle the issue, a spokesman for Hirano told Stars and Stripes.

On Okinawa, Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima backed the rumored proposal, saying it would be moving in a direction he has sought, according to his spokesman.

Nago Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro also supported the idea.

“Pushing the site farther offshore has been our demand from the beginning,” a spokesman quoted the mayor as saying. “I feel that the proposal is a sign for the United States to show consideration to our voice.”

Gates was expected to address the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, including relocating operations of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab in the rural northern part of Okinawa. His two-day stop is ahead of President Barack Obama’s planned visit next month.

Although U.S. officials are pushing for a decision on Futenma before Obama’s arrival, that prospect seems unlikely.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told reporters Friday that he would put off his decision on the runway until next year, possibly not until the summer, several Japanese newspapers reported Saturday.

He was quoted by the Okinawa Times as saying the decision must be made between Nago’s mayoral election in January and the governor’s election next November.

On Monday, a spokesman for the prime minister would neither confirm nor deny the reports, saying Hatoyama spoke during an unofficial talk with reporters at his residence.

The prime minister’s reported comments nevertheless drew criticism from Okinawa leaders.

“Holding a decision until after the Nago mayor election means that he is forcing people in Nago and Okinawa to [continue to] go through this painful experience,” Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga said, according to his spokesman. “What he is doing is to use Okinawan people as a testing ground.”

While Shimabukuro supports the air facility plan, his opponent Susumu Inamine said last week that demanding to move the air facility outside Okinawa would be his major campaign promise, Inamine’s campaign manager Masaki Kamiyama told Stars and Stripes on Monday.

“He would urge the government to keep their words to move the facility outside Okinawa, or better yet outside Japan,” Kamiyama said.

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