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Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009

MSDF told to prep for Somalia mission

Patrols against pirates may start in March


Staff writer

Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada on Wednesday ordered the Maritime Self-Defense Force to prepare to deploy a task force off Somalia to patrol for pirates.

But it remains unresolved under what conditions the MSDF would be allowed to use force against the pirates, who routinely hijack ships near Somalia's shores and hold them and their crews for ransom.

Prime Minister Taro Aso is expected to give the final go-ahead to the MSDF deployment in a month, after which warships will begin protecting Japanese and Japan-linked commercial vessels off Somalia in late March or later.

This would mark the first time MSDF ships are posted overseas under the maritime police-action provision of the Self-Defense Forces Law. More than a dozen countries, including the United States and France, have ships stationed in the Gulf of Aden to ward off Somali pirates.

Based on a petition by the antipiracy project team of the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc, Aso ordered Hamada to start laying the groundwork for the dispatch during a Security Council meeting Wednesday.

Hamada in turn told the chiefs of the Joint Staff Office, chief of the MSDF and the Defense Intelligence Headquarters to swiftly set up the forces.

"Piracy in Somalia is a threat not only to Japan but to the international community," Hamada told the Self-Defense Forces team.

The defense minister stressed that the deployment based on the police-action provision is "an interim measure," and deliberations to pass a new law on antipiracy, which will provide more autonomy for the forces to use weapons and efficiently protect multinational ships, should begin promptly.

"It is essential that the dispatch take place under a revamped law. We must speed up the process," Hamada told reporters. Aso told reporters Tuesday that a new law on antipiracy will probably be submitted to the Diet in March.

Under the maritime police-action provision, MSDF ships will only be able to protect Japanese ships, ships managed by Japanese companies or vessels carrying Japanese crew members or cargo for Japan.

The guideline prevents the MSDF from providing protection for foreign vessels and limits the use of weapons to emergency evacuations and self-defense.

The actual patrolling under the police-action provision will likely begin in late March to early April, but Hamada told reporters the exact timing of the sendoff will be decided after the MSDF is fully geared up.

Not only is the Defense Ministry tasked with readying equipment and training servicemen, it must also coordinate with other ministries and gather local information as well as set the rules of engagement.

The detachment will likely include a number of destroyers equipped with patrol helicopters and high-speed boats.

The team is expected to escort Japan-related vessels that file for support through the land ministry, but a Defense Ministry official acknowledged it isn't clear how many ships are eligible for MSDF protection.



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