Japan ends 8-year naval refueling mission

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TOKYO (AP) — Japan on Friday wrapped up its eight-year naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean supporting the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, fulfilling a campaign pledge of the new government in Tokyo.

The mission was a way for Japan — barred by its pacifist constitution from sending troops into combat — to support the U.S. in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The government at that time, led by conservatives who lost elections last August, had to pass a special law allowing for the ships to be sent. That mandate expired Friday.

Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa ordered the destroyer Ikazuchi and supply ship Mashu to pull out of the Indian Ocean on Friday.

The government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama opposed the mission, saying Japan should take humanitarian rather than military measures, to help Afghanistan. In November, Japan pledged $5 billion in fresh aid to help Afghanistan strengthen its police force, for agriculture and other infrastructure projects.

In announcing the withdrawal, however, Hatoyama said Japan will continue its support for international peace.

“We will continue to act positively and proactively to contribute to international efforts against terrorism,” Hatoyama said in a statement.

During the mission that started in November 2001, Japan provided about 137 million gallons (520 million liters) of oil, as well as 11,000 tons of water, to vessels and aircraft from about a dozen countries, including the U.S., Pakistan, France, Britain and Germany, according to the Defense Ministry.

Japan spent more than 10 billion yen ($110 million) for the operation in the last two years alone, the ministry said. Demand for the mission declined, and Japan has yet to provide refueling service this year, but was expected to offer its final mission Friday afternoon to an undisclosed country before pulling out, a ministry official said on condition of anonymity, citing protocol.

Kitazawa has suggested the possibility of sending warships for a similar refueling service for an ongoing international anti-piracy mission off the Somali coast.