No deal by Japan PM, opposition on Afghan mission

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TOKYO, Oct 30 (Reuters) Japan's prime minister failed today to win the main opposition leader's agreement to extend a naval mission backing U.S.-led Afghan operations, activities Washington says are vital to the fight against terrorism.

Under heavy pressure from the United States, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is struggling against a newly confident opposition to enact a bill to enable Japan's navy to keep providing fuel for US and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean.

A Japanese supply ship yesterday conducted its last refuelling operation under the current law, which expires on November 1. The mission is certain to be halted for months, if not longer.

''Unfortunately, we did not reach an agreement today,'' Fukuda told reporters after meeting Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, who objects to the mission in part because he says it lacks a formal UN mandate.

''We have to make efforts to find some common point, so we agreed to meet again,'' said Fukuda, who had requested the unusual political summit.

Officials from the ruling and opposition camps said Fukuda and Ozawa were likely to meet again on Friday.

Fukuda's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, resigned suddenly last month after a year in office plagued by scandals and gaffes among cabinet ministers, saying he hoped to clear the way for extending the naval mission.

US ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer has campaigned publicly for extending the naval mission. Last week he said that a permanent halt would send a ''very bad message to the international community and terrorists''.

Despite the intense US pressure, some political analysts say the US-Japan alliance is unlikely to be seriously dented by a halt to the mission.

Still, Fukuda is taking pains to show Washington that he is doing all he can. ''America is making a very strong demand to have the mission resumed, so Fukuda is asking Ozawa to somehow agree,'' said political commentator Minoru Morita.

''But I think compromise is impossible.'' Just under 50 per cent of Japanese voters agree that the mission should be extended, short of the 60 per cent Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba told Reuters this month was needed for the ruling parties to use their two-thirds majority to override an upper house rejection of the bill without sparking a backlash.

That means winning the public's hearts and minds is key, especially since speculation about an early election for parliament's powerful lower house is rife.

''Fukuda's strategy is to present an image of himself as gentle and polite, in contrast to an image of Ozawa as stubborn and cold,'' said independent political analyst Hirotaka Futatsuki.

Prospects for extending the mission, though, have been complicated by a scandal involving a senior defence ministry official who admitted in parliament yesterday that he was wrong to have accepted gifts from a defence contractor.

Former Vice Minister Takemasa Moriya denied he had done favours for the contractor, but opposition lawmakers and Japanese media said the testimony had not laid the scandal to rest.

REUTERS PD SSC1347

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