Antipiracy task force heads for Somalia

KURE (Kyodo) Two Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers set sail for Somalia on Saturday to patrol for pirates, embarking on the first overseas mission of its kind for Japan.

The 4,650-ton Sazanami and 4,550-ton Samidare from the 8th Escort Division of the 4th Escort Flotilla left their base in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, after an afternoon ceremony attended by Prime Minister Taro Aso and Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada.

It will take the vessels two to three weeks to reach the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden, so actual escort activities are unlikely to begin until early next month, Defense Ministry officials said.

About 1,200 family members gathered at the base to see their loved ones off.

“It would be a lie if I said I’m not worried,” said a 29-year-old woman who came to bid her husband farewell. “Especially because this is an unprecedented mission.”

Her 27-year-old husband, a leading seaman, looked determined before departure.

“Though I’m sad to leave my family, this is my duty,” he said.

Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada gave the order for the mission on Friday.

Since the mission will be based on the maritime police action provision of the SDF law, the destroyers will only be able to escort vessels linked to Japan — Japanese-registered ships, foreign ships with Japanese nationals or cargo on board, and others operated by Japanese shipping firms.

Japan Coast Guard officers will also be aboard to handle police-related matters, such as evidence collection and suspects, if pirates are found.

Members of the MSDF Special Boarding Unit, a special commando squad, is also part of the mission. They will handle close encounters with the pirates, who are armed with rockets and automatic rifles.

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

To better deal with pirate attacks, the government submitted an antipiracy bill to the Diet on Friday that, if passed, would provide more latitude in engaging pirates, including permission to fire at pirate boats that ignore warning shots.

Hamada is hoping the Diet will pass the bill as soon as possible so the new law can back the antipiracy mission immediately after enactment.

But it remains unclear whether the Diet will approve the bill, given that the House of Councilors is controlled by the opposition. Some opposition parties are concerned the potential for weapons use will bring Japan dangerously close to violating the Constitution.

To support the mission, an MSDF refueling ship in the Indian Ocean for the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan will give fuel and water to the destroyers, which will also make occasional port calls in Djibouti, Aden in Yemen, and Salalah in Oman during the mission, the officials said.

Japan also plans to deploy MSDF P-3C patrol aircraft to the gulf, but only after forging a status of forces agreement with Djibouti, where the MSDF plans to base its planes during the mission, they added.

Japan joins more than a dozen countries, including the U.S., Russia, China and some European Union nations, that have deployed naval vessels to patrol for pirates around the Horn of Africa.

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