Japan opposition turns up heat over naval mission

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TOKYO, Oct 22 (Reuters) Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's efforts to pass a bill to extend a naval mission supporting US-led military operations in Afghanistan today hit another snag after revelations of fresh scandals involving the defence ministry.

The scandals give the opposition, which is against the refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean, more ammunition to attack the government in a row that could spark a general election.

But a newspaper poll showed that Fukuda's support has dropped more than 10 per centage points to 46 per cent, dampening prospects that he would risk calling a lower house election.

Parliamentary debate over the naval mission, which Washington wants Tokyo to continue, was set to start tomorrow, but the main opposition Democratic Party said it wanted officials involved in the scandals to give sworn testimony first.

''It seems as if the whole government has been involved in a cover-up and I think it may still be going on,'' main opposition Democratic Party executive Yukio Hatoyama told reporters.

The Defence Ministry said on Monday that some of its officials had for years kept quiet about an error in details of the mission, under which Japan provides fuel and water to US and other ships policing the Indian Ocean against drug runners, arms smugglers and militants.

The Japanese military under-reported the amount of fuel provided for a US tanker, and the issue is key to opposition charges that fuel might have been diverted for use in Iraq.

Fukuda had said officials only realised the mistake last month after an activists' group pointed it out.

''I would like people to consider this separately from international cooperation under the new bill, but I imagine it will be difficult,'' Fukuda told reporters.

VOTERS DIVIDED The opposition is also demanding testimony by former vice defence minister Takemasa Moriya about media reports of inappropriately close ties to a defence contractor, as well as over his involvement in the refuelling mission.

Japanese voters are divided on the government plan to continue the naval mission, with 48 per cent of respondents supporting it and 43 per cent opposed, according to a poll carried out by the Mainichi newspaper on October 20-21.

Opposition parties, which control the upper house, have vowed to vote down the extension, and while the ruling bloc can override the upper house vote with its two-thirds majority in the more powerful lower house, lawmakers might be reluctant to resort to this without strong public support.

Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba told Reuters last week that the ruling camp would need voter backing of at least 60 per cent to use their lower house majority to pass the bill.

The Mainichi poll also showed that 46 per cent of respondents said they approved of Fukuda, down 11 percentage points from the paper's previous survey conducted last month just after he took office.

The poll result was similar to that of a survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper last week.

The share of those who do not support the prime minister inched up 5 percentage points to 30 per cent.

Although an election for the lower house need not be held until late 2009, parliamentary deadlock over the naval mission could trigger a snap election earlier.

The Mainichi survey, which collected responses from 1,064 voters, showed that support for the Fukuda's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the main opposition Democratic Party both stood at 27 per cent.

REUTERS SG HS1837

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