Japan official admits golf, gifts from defence firm

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TOKYO, Oct 29 (Reuters) A former top defence official caught in a scandal that could derail Japan's role in US-led anti-terrorism operations said it was wrong to accept golf rounds and gifts from a defence contractor, but denied doing favours in return.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is struggling to enact a bill to enable Japan's navy to keep providing fuel for US and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean.

But he looks sure to miss a November 1 deadline, when current legislation expires.

Former Vice Defence Minister Takemasa Moriya, testifying under oath in parliament, also said an ex-defence minister had been present once when he was wined and dined by the company executive, but he declined to identify the politician.

Opposition parties, which control parliament's upper house and can delay legislation, have vowed to vote against the mission and hope to use the latest scandal to boost voter opposition to its extension and prompt an early general election.

Main opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa agreed to meet Fukuda to discuss the new bill and other matters tomorrow morning, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) executive told a news conference later in the day.

There was no sign he was ready to change his stance against the mission, which he has said lacks a UN mandate.

The US-led mission targets vessels carrying drug runners, gun smugglers and militants.

Moriya, who stepped down in August after more than four years as vice defence minister, is suspected of having given preferential treatment to defence-related trading firm Yamada Corp and another firm, Nihon Mirise Corp, set up by a former Yamada executive.

He said that he -- often accompanied by his wife -- had played golf more than 200 times with the defence firm executive over a 12-year period and was treated to meals, trips and gifts as well.

''For a person in my position, this was extremely inappropriate,'' Moriya told a parliamentary panel.

''I feel painfully responsible for affecting the special anti-terrorism law, which is a very important issue for Japan's state affairs and diplomacy,'' he added.

Moriya said he had played golf with the contractor, a long-time friend, to relieve the stress of his high-pressure job.

''As I climbed to my top post, I had a lot of daily stress and wanted somehow on the weekends to relieve that,'' he said.

''But that was lax ... and I did what I should not have done.'' Moriya, 63, repeatedly denied he had given preferential treatment to the defence contractor.

''That was never the case,'' he said.

DOUBTS REMAIN Hiroshi Kawaguchi, a Democratic Party lawmaker who questioned Moriya, was not convinced.

''From the standpoint of the general public, it is impossible that the firm did not expect something in return,'' he said, noting Yamada Corp had won billions of yen worth of defence contracts.

Moriya also denied any role in defence ministry misreporting of the amount of fuel supplied by Japan to the US-led maritime operation, a misstep that has fanned speculation about possible diversion of fuel ships taking part in US operations in Iraq.

Japan's role in the Indian Ocean mission is certain to be halted for months if not longer after the current law expires.

Political analysts said it was unclear how well the opposition's strategy of focusing on the Moriya affair would work.

A survey by the Nikkei business daily published today showed that 47 per cent of voters responding were in favour of extending the naval mission compared with 35 per cent who want it to end.

Support for Fukuda's month-old cabinet edged down 4 per centage points to 55 per cent in the Nikkei survey.

REUTERS SKB RK1704

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