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Japan calls on US military to suspend Osprey flights after fatal crash

This file photo taken on August 23, 2022 shows a US military Osprey aircraft at the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the centre of the city of Ginowan, Okinawa prefecture. (Photo by AFP)

Japan has asked the US military to suspend all non-emergency V-22 Osprey flights over its territory after one crashed into the sea in western Japan, killing at least one person onboard and leaving several more missing, authorities said.

A US military Osprey aircraft, assigned to the 353rd Special Operations Wing, experienced an “aircraft mishap” during a “routine training mission,” on Wednesday near the small southern Japanese island of Yakushima with eight people on board.

In this regard, Japanese defense minister, Minoru Kihara, told the parliament on Thursday that “the occurrence of such an accident causes great anxiety to the people of the region … and we are requesting the US side to conduct flights of Ospreys deployed in Japan after these flights are confirmed to be safe.”

The crash happened near Yakushima, an island about 45 miles south of the Kagoshima region on the southern main island of Kyushu. The island is a World Natural Heritage site, where the water depth is about 30 meters.

The Coast Guard confirmed that one man was recovered from the sea “unconscious and was not breathing” 1.8 miles from Anbo Port, on the eastern side of Yakushima, by a boat from the Yakushima Town Rescue Center.

According to witnesses, the left engine of the aircraft appeared to be on fire as it went down into the sea near Yakushima airport, Japanese broadcaster NHK reported. Nearby fishing boats rushed to the scene, where three of the crew members were located.

Search and rescue operations to find the other missing are still ongoing, while the US Air Force has said the cause of the mishap is currently unknown.

“Our focus is on the ongoing search and rescue operations, and we're praying for a safe return,” Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, said in a post on X.

Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force (SDF), which also operates Ospreys, will suspend flights of the aircraft until the circumstances of the incident are clarified, another senior defense ministry official said in parliament.

An Osprey is a military aircraft that is mostly used to transport “troops, equipment, and supplies from assault ships and land bases,” according to the US Marine Corps.

The V-22 Osprey, one of many variants of this aircraft, is due to replace older helicopters and other fleets in the Corps.

The hybrid aircraft which is dual-piloted and takes off and lands like a helicopter but can rotate its propellers and cruise like an airplane, has a troubled history, with a string of fatal crashes over the years.

In the last series of Osprey crashes, in August the aircraft crashed on a remote Australian island during a joint exercise with countries including the Philippines, killing three of the 23 who were aboard the aircraft.

Also in June last year, an MV-22B Osprey aircraft, crashed in southeastern California just north of the Mexican border, killing four marines onboard.

The last fatal US military aircraft crash in Japan was in 2018, when a mid-air collision during a training exercise killed six people, according to Japan's defense ministry.

More than 50,000 US troops are stationed across Japan, which hosts the biggest overseas concentration of US military forces.

Last year, the Japanese government approved a new $8.6 billion, five-year host-nation support budget to cover the cost of hosting American troops in the country in order to focus on joint response and deterrence amid rising threats from China, North Korea, and Russia.

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