TOKYO, May 16 (Xinhua) -- Some 17,000 people on Sunday formed a "human chain" surrounding the U.S. Marine Corps' Futemma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, protesting the planned relocation of its functions within the prefecture and urging an early return of the base, said reports from Naha, capital of Okinawa Prefecture.
The demonstration came after tens of thousands of Okinawa residents staged a mass rally Sunday in the village of Yomitan on the western coast of the Okinawa Island on April 25, demanding the central government relocate a U.S. marine base outside of the southernmost prefecture.
Present at the gathering were Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha and Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, who announced a joint statement appealing to the central government to drop the plan of relocating the functions within the prefecture.
''We made it clear to people in and out of Japan that the people of the prefecture are against the government's attempt to change its stance and promote a relocation within the prefecture, '' Iha was quoted by Kyodo News as telling reporters after the rally.
''We want the government to stick to its (previous) stance of relocating (the Futemma base) at least outside of the prefecture and negotiate with the United States,'' he said.
Under an existing agreement with Washington inked in 2006, the instillation would be moved from the highly populated area of Ginowan in Okinawa to the Marines' Camp Schwab in Nago, also in Okinawa.
The existing agreement, estimated to cost some 10.3 billion U.S. dollars, would also see 8,000 of the 20,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Japan's southernmost prefecture relocated from Okinawa to the U.S. island of Guam, by 2014.
On Thursday Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said the dispute over relocating a U.S. Marine facility in Okinawa Prefecture will likely not be settled by his self imposed end-of-May deadline and efforts to resolve the impasse will continue in June and possibly beyond.
Hatoyama, whose pre-election pledge was to move the Futemma base out of Okinawa and even Japan entirely, has seen support for its Cabinet plunge over the issue, compounded by him likely to miss his own deadline on resolving the issue, ahead of key upper house elections this summer that the DPJ must win to avoid a policy stalemate.
Washington maintains the existing plan represents the best solution for security in the Asia Pacific region and any alternative plan must have the support of local leaders and residents and have the backing of Japan's ruling coalition.
Residents of Okinawa as well as Tokunoshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture, which may also end up bearing some of the burden of hosting the relocated U.S. Marine Corps' Futemma Air Station's operations, are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to Hatoyama's relocation plans, which have backed the Japanese premier into a very tight political corner.