OKINAWA CITY, Japan – Tempers flared Wednesday as local police wanting to arrest a U.S. Air Force sergeant suspected of raping an Okinawan woman were kept waiting for a second day while Washington mulled whether to hand over the suspect.
Police here obtained an arrest warrant on Monday for Timothy Woodland, a 24-year-old staff sergeant stationed at Kadena Air Base. Police allege Woodland raped the woman last week in a popular tourist area. He has denied the accusation.
Under a bilateral agreement, police cannot arrest Woodland before formally filing charges, unless they have the approval of the U.S. military and government. Officials in Washington were discussing whether to give that approval, but had not reached a decision as of Wednesday.
Okinawa's governor said he wanted the suspect turned over immediately.
"We are very disappointed that we have not been able to have the suspect transferred to our jurisdiction," Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said in a statement Wednesday. "We strongly request that the suspect be turned over as soon as possible."
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet spokesman Yasuo Fukuda also expressed concern.
"If it takes much longer, we may have to ask for an explanation," he said.
The bilateral Status of Forces Agreement, which outlines the rights of the nearly 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan, has often been a source of tension.
In announcing they had obtained the arrest warrant, Okinawan police said they hoped to complete the investigation as soon as possible. America's new ambassador to Japan, former Sen. Howard Baker, stressed in an arrival speech Tuesday that Washington was committed to cooperating with Japanese authorities.
Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, speaking to reporters in Tokyo, noted that the process involves delicate legal issues, and said U.S. military officials were concerned about protecting Woodland's rights.
Tanaka added that both sides are working together to resolve the matter.
"We are in frequent contact," she said.
Woodland, who is in military custody at Kadena but has been questioned by police daily, would be only the second American military suspect turned over to Japanese authorities prior to the filing of charges.
The first such case occurred in 1996, when an American was arrested and later convicted of attempted murder near Nagasaki.
About 26,000 U.S. troops are stationed on Okinawa, a small island on Japan's southern fringe, and residents have long expressed concerns about crowding and the danger of military-related accidents.
The rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three American servicemen in 1995 brought long-simmering anger over misconduct to a boil, setting off the largest anti-base protests in Japan in decades.
"It is time to change this agreement," said an editorial in the Mainichi, a major nationally circulated newspaper.