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Thousands protest US military presence on Okinawa

Thousands of people have gathered on Okinawa to protest against US military bases on the southwestern Japanese island. The demonstration comes after the arrest of an American suspected of killing a local woman.

A huge crowd rallied in the prefectural capital, Naha, on Sunday morning to voice their anger over the alleged crime.

The murder case has intensified long-held local opposition to the heavy US presence on Okinawa, straining relations between island authorities and the Washington-Tokyo security alliance.

Sunday's protest began with a moment of silence for 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro, the woman allegedly raped and murdered in April by a former Marine employed at a US base.

The protesters are demanding a review of the security agreement between Japan and the US, which burdens Okinawa with hosting the bulk of American troops in Japan. Demonstrators also object to a plan to move a Marine Corps air station to a less populous part of the island.

Some 50,000 US military personnel and civilians are employed at American bases on Okinawa.

Japan's Futenma US military base

Locals oppose plans to move the Futenma air base to a less-populated part of the island

Futenma spat

The US and Japan agreed to move Futenma from its current location in the middle of a city following the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three American personnel. There were massive protests in the wake of that case, prompting Washington to pledge to reduce the US footprint on the island.

The planned relocation to waters off the island's northern coast has been stalled by legal hurdles and opposition from nearby residents. In 2010, nearly 100,000 people joined a protest against the construction of the base.

Okinawa's governor Takeshi Onaga, who was attending Sunday's rally, has sought to block the plan, and instead wants Futenma moved off the island altogether.

Okinawa was the site of some of the bloodiest fighting between US and Japanese forces during the Second World War. The southwestern outpost remained under American occupation for 27 years, and around a fifth of its land is still under US military control.

nm/jlw (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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