Tokyo, Washington at crucial stage of talks on Japan based U.S. military base realignment

Tokyo and the Washington are at a crucial stage of talks aimed at deciding the realignment of U.S. bases in Japan and resolving a disagreement over the relocation of an American air facility on Okinawa, a top government official said Thursday.

Richard Lawless, U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific, was in Japan on Thursday for a series of meetings with defense officials, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said. Lawless arrived on Wednesday.

"We are now at a crucial stage of discussions," Hosoda said. "We hope we can smooth out the differences and reach a conclusion."

Tokyo and Washington have been negotiating to relocate some of the 50,000 U.S. military personnel based in Japan, most of whom are stationed on the southern island state of Okinawa.

Japan and the United States have clashed, however, over where to move helicopter operations at the Futenma air base, which is at the center of Okinawan protests over the U.S. military presence.

Japan has suggested moving the helicopter functions to another U.S. base, after an earlier proposal to build a 2,500-meter (1.56-mile) offshore island on a coral reef ran into opposition from protesters and environmentalists.

Tokyo and Washington agreed to move the Marine Corps Air Station, Futenma, from the crowded city of Ginowan to a less congested location following massive protests over the 1995 rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen.

U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer, in an interview with the national Yomiuri newspaper published Thursday, reiterated Washington's opposition to moving Futenma's functions to Camp Schwab, a U.S. Marine base.

"I think our position for Camp Schwab is that it's just not going to work," Schieffer was quoted as saying. "All we'd do is transfer the problems we have in Futenma to someplace else," reports the AP.

Photo: the AP P.T.