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U.S. Army chief in Japan suspended over handling of sex assault probe

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The commanding general of U.S. Army forces in Japan was suspended on Friday due to allegations he failed to properly investigate a sexual assault complaint, the Pentagon said.

The suspension came as the U.S. military seeks to crack down on the problem of sexual assault following a jump in reports of unwanted sexual contact in the services and a spate of embarrassing assault cases that have raised questions about the military's ability to deal with the problem.

Major General Michael Harrison "was suspended ... due to allegations that Harrison failed in his duties as a commander to report or properly investigate an allegation of sexual assault," the Pentagon said in a statement.

The Pentagon did not immediately release further details on the sexual assault case in question. Army spokesman George Wright said there were no allegations of sexual misconduct against Harrison.

While a number of officers have been suspended in recent months in sexual assault-related cases, Harrison's was the first in which an officer was suspended for failing to properly investigate a case.

He was suspended by Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno, the statement said.

Harrison will be replaced by Major General James Boozer, the former deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, who will serve as interim commander in Japan until the investigation is complete and the issue resolved, the statement said.

Also on Friday, the Air Force named Major General Margaret Woodward to be director of an expanded Air Force Sexual Assault and Prevention Office, which is charged with trying to eliminate the problem. She commanded the U.S. air contribution to the no-fly zone over Libya during the operation that toppled longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The previous head of the office, Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, was charged with sexual battery in May for allegedly groping a woman in a parking lot in the Virginia suburbs not far from the Pentagon.

Harrison's suspension came a day after Admiral James Winnefeld, the second-highest ranking U.S. officer, likened sexual assault to insider attacks in Afghanistan in which Afghan soldiers have turned their weapons on coalition partners.

"Any form of unwanted sexual contact or sexual harassment is a different kind of insider attack that is lethal to our culture, to our morale and to everything we are and everything we stand for," Winnefeld told the 26th Annual Joint Women's Leadership Symposium. "We will not allow this to go on."

An annual Pentagon study released recently estimated that unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, jumped by 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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