Japan to order navy ships home from Afghan mission

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TOKYO, Nov 1 (Reuters) Japanese ships will be ordered to withdraw from a mission backing US-led military operations in Afghanistan, Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba said today as a midnight deadline to extend the mission was set to expire.

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.

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

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, rejected a plea from Fukuda to agree to the new law in a rare one-on-one chat on Tuesday.

The two are set to meet again tomorrow.

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

With the law set to expire at midnight today 2030 hrs IST, Ishiba told the parliamentary panel that he would order the Tokiwa and an accompanying destroyer to head home.

''I feel sorry and sad that our country's naval activity will be suspended,'' Ishiba said.

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 per cent of the fuel consumed by coalition vessels.

REUTERS PD RAI0845

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