Japanese navy ships leave for anti-piracy mission

TOKYO – Two more Japanese navy destroyers left Monday to join an international mission to curb piracy off the coast of Somalia, and for the first time will be authorized to escort both foreign and Japanese vessels.

Iran, meanwhile, said it also sent two warships to the Gulf of Aden to protect Iranian merchant containers and oil tankers from Somali pirates.

The Japanese destroyers Harusame and Amagiri will replace two other destroyers that Japan deployed to the Gulf of Aden in March in its military's first postwar overseas policing action.

Japan's military is limited to defensive missions under the country's post-World War II charter and its forays overseas have been largely restricted to refueling, airlifting and humanitarian activities.

"You're assigned to a new task of escorting foreign vessels — a mission that will be very tough," Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told the departing crew at a ceremony at Yokosuka Port, just south of Tokyo.

The two Japanese destroyers, each carrying two patrol helicopters and a pair of speedboats, are expected to reach Somali waters in late July, a Defense Ministry spokesman said on condition of anonymity, citing department policy. Together the two warships carry about 420 sailors, including trained commandos, as well as eight Coast Guard officers who were authorized to arrest pirates, he said.

Japan also dispatched two P-3C surveillance planes to join the anti-piracy mission in May.

Harusame and Amagiri are scheduled to meet up with their predecessors off the African coast before taking over the mission in late July. They will be allowed a greater role in the mission under a law taking effect July 24 that allows Japanese navy ships to escort foreign vessels. Until then, they can only escort other Japanese vessels.

Opposition lawmakers say the mission violates Japan's pacifist constitution and the new law could increase the risk of drawing Japanese ships into combat. Japan's ruling party argued the mission was aimed at high-seas criminals, making it a policing, not military, effort.

The Defense Ministry says destroyers Sazanami and Samidare have escorted 105 Japanese vessels carrying Japanese crew members since joining the mission late March.

Iranian state television quoted Iran's deputy navy commander Gholam Reza Khadem on the deployment of its two warships. Press TV's Web site said the warships' dispatch comes a week after Iran's navy saved one of its oil tankers from Somali pirates.

A cargo ship operated by Iran was also briefly hijacked by pirates off the Somali coast in November.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991. Authorities say marauding criminals in speedboats attacked more than 100 ships off Somalia's coast last year, including high-profile hijackings with multimillion-dollar ransom demands.

Japan has conducted a naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean since 2001 to support U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. The mission is now limited to refueling vessels making anti-terrorism patrols, following opposition protests.

Wuppertal in Germany. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender