TOKYO — Japanese construction workers on Wednesday resumed landfill work at the new site of the U.S. military base on Okinawa despite protests by the island’s residents that the move tramples on their rights and raises environmental concerns.

The planned relocation site for the base, on Okinawa’s eastern coast, has been at the center of a dispute between the government in Tokyo and the local authorities at a time of the island’s growing strategic importance.

Okinawa is becoming key for the Japan-U.S. military alliance in the face of growing tensions with China while Japan also rapidly seeks to build up its military in the southwestern region.

Three weeks ago, the Fukuoka High Court’s Naha branch ordered Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki to approve the central government’s modified landfill plan, and allowed the Land and Transport Ministry to order the work to resume by overriding the governor’s disapproval.

On a barge brought to the location on Wednesday, a pair of loader machines scooped up mounds of rock and gravel and dumped them into the sea as part of reclamation needed to reinforce the extremely soft seabed at the site planned for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Tamaki, who has appealed the order to the Supreme Court, said the court ruling was unjust and goes against the will of the residents. Under Japanese law, construction can proceed while the court decision is pending. He called the resumption of the landfill work “extremely regrettable.”

Okinawa and Tokyo have long tussled over the relocation of the Futenma base. Tokyo and Washington agreed in 1996 to close the Futenma air station after the rape of a schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen led to a massive anti-base movement. But the closing was held up for nearly 30 years because of persistent protests and lawsuits against the relocation plan.

In 2018, Japan’s central government began the reclamation work off Henoko Bay on Okinawa’s eastern coast to pave the way for the relocation of the Futenma base from its populated neighborhood on the island.

The central authorities later discovered that segments of the designated reclamation site are on soft ground, and submitted a revision to the original plan with additional land improvement at an estimated cost of 930 billion yen ($6.5 billion). But Okinawa’s prefectural government rejected the revision plan and suspended the reclamation work.

Tamaki, the governor, has sought a significant reduction of the U.S. military on Okinawa, which is home to more than half of 50,000 American troops based in Japan under a bilateral security pact.

Hundreds of scholars, film directors and ordinary citizens who have advocated for Okinawans’ autonomy, signed a global petition demanding the island cease to be “a de facto military colony of the United States and Japan ever since the end of the World War II.”

One of the petition organizers, Satoko Norimatsu Oka who heads the Vancouver-based Peace Philosophy Center, provided a copy of the document to The Associated Press.

“We must end the discrimination and military colonization of Okinawa,” said the petitioners, who include filmmaker Oliver Stone.

The petition urged President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to “cancel the construction of the new base in Henoko.”

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