Japan orders navy ships home from Afghan mission

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TOKYO, Nov 1 (Reuters) Japan ordered its naval ships to withdraw from a mission backing US-led military operations in Afghanistan as a deadline to extend the activities was set to expire today.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has been struggling against a resurgent opposition to enact a new bill to allow Japan's navy to keep providing free fuel for US and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean, a mission seen as vital by close ally Washington.

Japan has supplied fuel and water worth about 22 billion yen (190 million dollars) over the six years of the mission.

''It is very regrettable that Japan's important activity will have to be suspended,'' Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told a parliamentary panel debating the new bill.

''Japan must rejoin the international team to fight terrorism as soon as possible by enacting new legislation.'' The naval mission is sure to be on the agenda when US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visits Japan next week as well as at a summit between Fukuda and President George W Bush that media say will take place in Washington on November 16.

The Pentagon said this week that Japan's withdrawal would not affect its patrolling of the Indian Ocean for drug smugglers, gun runners and suspected terrorists.

However, U.S. ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer, who has been lobbying hard for Japan to stay the course, has said a permanent halt would send a very bad message to the international community and to terrorists.

Australia, which has almost 1,000 troops in Afghanistan and is a close ally of Washington and Tokyo, said Japan should extend the mission, but added it understood the debate in Japan.

''We are hopeful that it may result in the resumption of Japan's contribution in this area, as an important part of Japan's increasingly active, and welcome, role in promoting global and regional security,'' Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in a statement.

PASSIVE STANCE Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura expressed worry about the impact on Japan's ties with its allies.

''Withdrawing our ships will not only impact the effectiveness of the maritime operations, but will seem as if Japan has switched to a passive stance in the fight against terrorism.

''Naturally this cannot but affect other countries' attitude towards Japan.'' Japan's main opposition Democratic Party and its small allies, which now control parliament's upper house and can delay legislation, have vowed to vote against the new bill.

Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, who is against the mission in part because he says it lacks a UN mandate.

He rejected a plea to agree to the new law in a rare one-on-one chat with Fukuda on Tuesday. The two are set to meet again tomorrow.

The Japanese supply ship Tokiwa performed its last refuelling operation under current enabling legislation on Monday.

With the law set to expire at midnight (1230 hrs IST), Ishiba ordered Tokiwa and an accompanying destroyer to head home.

The fuel provided by Japan's supply mission accounted for about one-fifth of total fuel consumed by coalition vessels from December 2001 through February 2003, according to Pentagon data. Since then, it has accounted for just over 7 percent of the fuel consumed by coalition vessel.

REUTERS PD RAI1148

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