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3RD LD: Destroyers leave for antipiracy mission off Somalia.

KURE, Japan, March 14 Kyodo


Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers set sail Saturday for an antipiracy mission off Somalia, marking the first such activity abroad for the country's Self-Defense Forces.

Two destroyers -- the 4,650-ton Sazanami and 4,550-ton Samidare of the 8th Escort Division of the 4th Escort Flotilla -- left their base in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, in the afternoon as some 1,200 family members bid farewell from a berth and a transport ship nearby.

At a ceremony before the departure, Prime Minister Taro Aso expressed resolve to tackle piracy, calling it ''our common enemy'' that threatens the country's lifeline for trade.

''It goes without saying that Japan must take a proactive measure now that other countries have begun an international campaign,'' he said, urging mission members to fulfill their duties.

It will take the vessels two to three weeks to reach the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia, making the actual escort mission likely to begin in early April, Defense Ministry officials said.

Saturday's dispatch follows the order Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada gave Friday for it on the basis of the maritime police action provision of the SDF law.

Because the provision was previously invoked only twice in cases that concerned the safeguarding of Japanese coastlines, critics say the use of the law for an antipiracy mission abroad effectively circumvents the law.

Partly because of this, the government submitted to parliament an antipiracy bill that would make up for some of the shortcomings in the mission based on the maritime policing provision.

Once that the bill is passed into law, the government intends to use it to legitimize the antipiracy mission.

Capt. Hiroshi Goto, the escort division commander who leads the mission, expressed determination to fulfill the duties given to his unit.

''I think this antipiracy mission is a very significant one in which we will be responsible for the safety of our country's maritime transport,'' he told reporters before he boarded the Sazanami.

Asked if he was nervous about the possibility of facing pirates who may be armed, the 50-year-old captain said, ''We are not particularly concerned or nervous because MSDF personnel have been trained on the assumption that they would use weapons in the first place.''

The ceremony was full of pomp with a full menu of honors provided by a musical band, honor guards and speeches by dignitaries, but some of the family members who gathered to see off their loved ones appeared concerned about the mission ahead.

''It would be a lie if I said I'm not worried,'' said a 29-year-old woman whose husband departed aboard the Samidare. ''Especially because this is an unprecedented mission.''

But her husband, a 27-year-old leading seaman, looked determined. ''Although I'm sad to leave my family behind, this is my duty,'' he said before he set off on the destroyer.

On Saturday, a dozen or so people were also seen demonstrating outside the Kure headquarters near the base, criticizing the government for using the antipiracy mission as a pretext for sending the SDF abroad on a more regular basis.

A total of roughly 400 MSDF personnel and eight Japan Coast Guard officers are aboard the two destroyers, which each carry two SH-60K patrol helicopters and two speedboats, according to the officials.

Coast guard officers will be on hand aboard the ships to process judicial matters, including collecting criminal evidence and handling crime suspects.

Members of the commando-style MSDF Special Boarding Unit are also part of the mission.

As a maritime police action, the destroyers will escort only vessels linked to Japan -- Japanese-registered ships, foreign ships with Japanese nationals or cargo on board, and other ships operated by Japanese shipping firms.

If the destroyers encounter pirates, MSDF personnel may fire warning shots. But under the maritime policing provision, they cannot harm the pirates except in limited circumstances, such as acting in self-defense.

To better deal with pirate attacks, the government is seeking to have enacted the new law that would provide more latitude in stopping piracy, including firing at pirate boats that close in on commercial ships despite repeated warnings to stop.

The law would also enable the MSDF to protect any ships, including foreign vessels without Japanese connections -- a provision government officials say is needed to fulfill Japan's international obligations.

It remains unclear, however, whether parliament will approve such a bill, given that the House of Councillors is controlled by the opposition. Some opposition parties are concerned about the potential use of force abroad, which is limited under the country's pacifist Constitution.

''We have to make an effort to have the law enacted as soon as possible. It'll be too late if things happen,'' Aso told reporters on Saturday after he saw off the destroyers at the base.

Besides the destroyers, Japan plans to deploy MSDF P-3C patrol aircraft to the gulf.

Spurred in part by calls from the domestic shipping industry and China's dispatch of navy destroyers late last year, Aso in late January instructed Hamada to prepare for an antipiracy mission off Somalia.

Japan joins more than a dozen countries, including Russia, China, the United States and some European Union nations, that have deployed their naval vessels to waters around the Horn of Africa on antipiracy missions.
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Publication:Japan Policy & Politics
Date:Mar 16, 2009
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