updated 1/5/2006 11:26:25 PM ET 2006-01-06T04:26:25

The U.S. Navy is holding an American sailor in confinement on suspicion of killing a Japanese woman earlier this week near Tokyo, the U.S. military said Friday.

Yoshie Sato, 56, was found beaten and unconscious in Yokosuka, near Tokyo, on Tuesday, and later died of internal bleeding. Police believe the victim was attacked during a robbery on her way to work, according to news reports.

The case comes at a time when Washington and Tokyo are trying to win local support for plans to build a military airstrip in the southern island of Okinawa and base a U.S. nuclear-powered warship at Yokosuka for the first time.

The sailor, who was not identified, was being held at the base in Yokosuka pending the investigation into the killing, U.S. Naval Forces Japan said in a brief statement. The statement made no mention of a handover to Japanese authorities.

The announcement came amid media speculation in Japan that the U.S. military would deliver the suspect to Japanese authorities. Japanese officials, however, said they had not yet decided whether to demand such a move.

The U.S. Navy said it was cooperating closely with Japanese police, and had imposed a temporary curfew requiring Navy personnel to be back on base by midnight until next Monday.

“The entire Navy community in Japan is deeply saddened by this incident and will immediately implement a period of reflection to collectively demonstrate sympathy for the tragic loss of life,” the Navy release said.

In 1995, an uproar over the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa triggered massive protests and led to the relocation of an air base to a less densely populated part of the prefecture.

The rape case also resulted in an agreement with the U.S. military that it would hand over American suspects in serious crimes to Japanese authorities for pre-indictment investigation.

About 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Japan under a joint security pact, but Tokyo and Washington agreed in October to move 7,000 Marines from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam, and shift within Japan some of the remaining troops.

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