The tiny fishing village of Heneko in Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture, is an unlikely venue for a showdown between the forces of light and darkness. For 1,450 days, Reverend Natsume Taida has camped out with supporters on this beautiful semi-tropical beachside to fight what he calls a great evil: the US military. 'They have brought us nothing but trouble,' he says. Passions run high here. Protesters have gone toe-to-toe with security guards and taken to canoes to block government engineers drilling for a proposed offshore US base. The reverend, one of the island's best-known anti-base activists, claims that he was almost killed last summer in an underwater tussle with a diver employed by Japan's Defence Agency. But he says he won't quit until the military leaves. 'Okinawa will never be peaceful until the US bases are gone.' Not all the locals feel as angry. Many grudgingly accept the largest concentration of US bases and troops in Asia in return for the estimated US$2 billion in income and government subsidies they bring to the prefecture - about 6 per cent of its economic output - according to a 2005 report by the US Forces. But a string of incidents involving the troops, including two alleged rapes, is again severely testing the already strained relationship. Local police this week issued an arrest warrant for a serviceman accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a local hotel. Another US Marine is in custody over the rape of a 14-year-old girl earlier this month. The assaults inevitably recall the brutal 1995 gang-rape of a 12-year-old girl, a crime that sparked the biggest anti-US protests in Okinawa's history. In a bid to quell local anger, the US military on Wednesday imposed an unprecedented curfew of all US personnel and their families, as part of what it calls a 'period of reflection'. The move followed unusually harsh comments from Japan's top government spokesman, Nobutaka Machimura, who said the American troops lacked discipline. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda called the rape of the 14-year-old 'unforgivable'. About 42,000 Americans live on Okinawa, which hosts roughly 75 per cent of all US military personnel and facilities in Japan, including more than 20,000 Marines. The bases are regarded by Washington and Tokyo as the lynchpin of their half-century security alliance. The Americans arrived in force in 1945, mounting a savage attack that wiped out close to a third of the local population and left 50,000 US troops killed or wounded. In 1972, the islands reverted to Japanese rule, but most of the bases stayed, including Kadena, the biggest and most active US Air Force base in East Asia, and Futenma, which sits smack in the middle of the city of Ginowan. The US military controls much of the land, sea and air, including air traffic up to 6,000 metres away. Tensions between the troops and locals are endemic. Generations have now grown up listening to the roar of tank and jet engines and living with the pollution they generate. Dozens of mainly drink-fuelled crimes by young Marines, many on rotation from war zones such as Iraq, are recorded annually. Two years ago, a US military worker was convicted of raping two women. Several more soldiers were arrested this month, including one who drunkenly wandered into a local home and passed out. 'People here are really tired of this,' says Shoichi Chibana, a local councillor and anti-base activist. 'We said we'd had enough 13 years ago after the gang rape, but now we are back to square one. Some people are saying that this could be the start of the end. We want these bases gone.' But military sources on the island say that campaigners are exaggerating the incidents. 'Usually, nobody would even pay attention to drunk and disorderly arrests,' said one speaking on condition of anonymity. 'The anti-base groups will use this to keep pressing for change to be made.' Like many on the American side, he questions the story of the schoolgirl rape that sparked the latest furore. Staff Sergeant Tyrone Hadnott, 38, reportedly gave the 14-year-old a lift from school and drove her to his house, where he tried to kiss her. When she resisted, he offered to drive her home, but on the way, he pulled over and allegedly raped her. Hadnott denies the rape but admits kissing the girl. 'What was she doing in his car, anyway?' says the US source. 'That was pretty dumb.' Douglas Lummis, an ex-Marine and Okinawa-based political scientist, agrees but says that misses the point. 'The soldier took her to his house, so that was dumb too. But he was confident because in 99 per cent of cases the girls don't go to the police. They choke it down. Everybody knows this rape is the tip of the iceberg.' The curfew and a reported 're-education programme' for soldiers including lecturers, on staying out of trouble, will have no impact, he says. 'On the one hand, they're teaching them to be killers, and on the other hand, they're trying to be sensitive to people's feelings. It won't work,' Mr Lummis said. Local activists have refused to be mollified by a face-saving visit to Okinawa last week by US Ambassador Thomas Schieffer, after the local government passed a strongly worded resolution demanding an apology and compensation for the family of the alleged victim. The activists say they plan a mass anti-US rally. Tokyo and Washington fear that further protests could wreck the controversial plan to build an offshore base off Heneko, relocated from the giant US Air Station in Ginowan. The US has promised to halve the number of troops and move them to Guam ... handing Tokyo the US$6 billion relocation fee. But opponents say it is not enough. Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA consultant and author of Okinawa: Cold War Island, calls the Island 'an accident waiting to happen' for the US. 'When [former US Secretary of Defence] Donald Rumsfeld visited Okinawa, he was told by the island's governor, 'You people are on the active volcano, and when it explodes, it is going to bring down your entire strategy in Asia in much the way the fall of the Berlin Wall did for the USSR'.'