Charge of Rape May Roil Summit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The alleged rape of a Japanese woman in Okinawa--which police say may have been committed by a U.S. serviceman--could cast a shadow on today's summit between President Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Officials had been expecting a smooth, relaxed summit at Camp David, Md., between the two relatively new leaders. At the top of the agenda: strengthening the bilateral security relationship and Koizumi's plans for reforming Japan's moribund economy.

But Friday's allegation could add some tension, particularly if it provokes a strong reaction in Okinawa. Koizumi has already called for U.S. military reductions on the southern Japanese island, which is home to nearly half the 53,000 American service personnel currently in Japan. He reportedly had planned to raise the issue with Bush today.

"I am concerned because that kind of crime strongly disturbs the local residents' feelings," Koizumi told reporters in Tokyo on Friday, but he noted that the facts of the case had not been confirmed.

An Air Force technical sergeant assigned to the 353rd special operations group at Kadena Air Base was a suspect, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, according to the Associated Press. He said the man and the woman, who was in her 20s, had been drinking together in a commercial area known as "American Village" in the town of Chatan before the incident early Friday.

Col. Jeanette Minnich, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces in Japan, said the suspect, who was not named, voluntarily went to the prefectural police for questioning. As of Friday night, he was in U.S. military custody and had not been arrested or charged.

As many as seven other U.S. servicemen also were questioned about the attack, most as possible witnesses, Davis said. In Washington, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said a number of servicemen had come to the woman's aid.

Early reports described the incident as a gang rape, but Okinawa police said later that one man committed the crime.

Relations between U.S. forces and Okinawans have perennially been tense because of aircraft noise and traffic disputes, as well as crime. They reached a nadir after a 12-year-old schoolgirl was raped by three U.S. servicemen in 1995, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets in anti-American protests.

In another incident with bad timing, just before President Clinton's appearance at last summer's Group of 8 summit of world leaders in Okinawa, a Marine was arrested after entering an Okinawa home and crawling into the bed of a schoolgirl. The U.S. military imposed curfews and a drinking ban on Marines, and Clinton expressed his regret over the incident to then-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

Koji Omi, the Cabinet minister in charge of Okinawa issues, said Friday that if the rape allegation is true, "we must issue a stern protest [to the U.S. military] and take necessary action."

Police requested the assistance of the U.S. military in the investigation. Lt. Gen. Earl B. Hailston, the senior U.S. military coordinator in Okinawa, said in a statement, "The kind of behavior alleged is entirely unacceptable and U.S. military officials are cooperating fully with Okinawan government officials and police to determine the facts of this incident.

"If a crime has occurred, U.S. military officials will work with local authorities to ensure the person responsible is held accountable for his actions."

Seiko Urasaki, a spokeswoman for Okinawa Women's Net, a civic group, said the Okinawans are "outraged and irritated" by the alleged crime. "It's a pity, but Okinawans feel terrified when they see Americans walking around town."

At today's summit, Koizumi is also expected to outline his bitter medicine for reforming the economy. The plan could weaken the yen and make exports to the U.S., such as cars, even cheaper.

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