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US APOLOGIZES for alleged rape on Okinawa as Japan awaits transfer of suspect


OKINAWA CITY, Japan (AP) _ The new U.S. ambassador expressed regret Tuesday for the alleged rape of an Okinawan woman by an American serviceman, while Japanese police waited for the U.S. military to hand over the suspect, an Air Force sergeant.

Former Sen. Howard Baker was barely off the plane Tuesday to take up his posting as U.S. envoy in Tokyo when he conveyed President Bush's contrition over the incident.

``President Bush said that we express our regret, our sincere regret,'' Baker told reporters on the tarmac at Narita International Airport. Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, the top U.S. officer on Okinawa, visited the prefectural (state) government office and also apologized.

The handover of Timothy Woodland, who police say has denied any involvement in the rape, was held in limbo by consultations between Tokyo and Washington. With the wait, anger among Okinawans was rising to the surface.

Yasuo Fukuda, Japan's top government spokesman, said Japan has formally requested Woodland's transfer from U.S. military custody. He said a U.S. response was expected sometime Tuesday, but by midnight none was announced.

Woodland, a 24-year-old staff sergeant stationed at Kadena Air Base, was brought in for a fifth day of questioning at Okinawa police headquarters. But after four hours, he was taken back to base at 7 p.m. Tuesday, said police spokesman Yoshio Nishmoto.

If Woodland _ whose hometown has not been announced _ is transferred, it would be only the second time the U.S. military has turned a serviceman over to Japanese custody before charges are actually filed.

Police say Woodland forced the woman up against a car in a parking lot of American Village, a trendy tourist area at about 2 a.m. Friday in the town of Chatan. Police said he then began raping her. Other Americans were nearby, and may have intervened on behalf of the victim, police said.

``This is a vicious crime that violates human rights, and is absolutely unforgivable,'' said Keiichi Inamine, Okinawa's governor.

The town government in Chatan adopted a resolution condemning the crime at a special session Tuesday. The document, approved by the 22-member Chatan assembly, also included a request to the U.S. military for a nighttime curfew in the town covering troops and a ban on drinking alcohol by them.

The town was also considering forming a citizens patrol to safeguard against crimes by U.S. servicemen, Kyodo News agency reported.

Students at Okinawa's Ryukyu University planned to stage a protest Wednesday against the suspected attack outside of the U.S. Marines' Futenma Airbase.

The alleged rape has revived concern over the conduct of the 26,000 U.S. troops stationed on this small island on Japan's southern fringe that has for decades been key to American security policy in Asia.

Complaints over military-related crime are endemic here, and Japanese officials have called for swift action.

Okinawans have long complained that the bases, while making a considerable contribution to the sagging local economy, cause crowding problems and create fears of possible accidents. Crime is also a long-standing source of friction.

In 1995, a 12-year-old schoolgirl was raped by three U.S. servicemen, touching off huge anti-base demonstrations that eventually led to an agreement to streamline the military presence here.
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