Japan sends ships to fight Somali pirate

deepak pace

Japan has ordered its ships to join the international fight against pirates off the shores of Somalia a move that has drawn criticism from opposition lawmakers who fear it could draw the country into military operations prohibited by its pacifist constitution.

The post-World War II charter limits Japan's military to conducting defensive operations. Its naval ships can only be deployed to protect Japanese boats and their crew. Ruling party members have argued that the battle against piracy is more a crime-fighting operation than a military one.

But opposition lawmakers have expressed concern that Japanese ships could be pressed into protecting foreign ships in an emergency.

Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said Wednesday the ships were only being sent to protect Japanese commercial vessels though the government says none have thus far been hijacked. Pirates have fired at three Japanese vessels. No one was injured.

Hamada did not say how many Japanese ships would be sent or when, and said his dispatch order was an interim measure until Parliament passes a formal law outlining the ships' activities in their mission.

Media reports say the ships could be dispatched as early as March.

"The pirates' activities off the Somali coast are a major threat not only to Japan but also to international society, and it is a problem that we must deal with urgently," Hamada said.

Piracy has taken an increasing toll on international shipping, especially in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest sea lanes. Pirates made an estimated $30 million hijacking ships for ransom last year, seizing more than 40 vessels off Somalia's 1,880-mile (3,000-kilometer) coastline.

Somali waters are now patrolled by more than a dozen warships from countries including Britain, France, Germany, Iran and the United States. China and South Korea have also ordered the dispatch of warships to protect their vessels and crews from pirates.

Japan's plan follows a U.N. Security Council decision authorizing countries to enter Somalia's territorial waters, with advance notice, and use "all necessary means" to stop acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.

Japanese officials are considering sending warships and aircraft but details are yet to be finalized, a ministry official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity, citing department policy.

Japan's Yomiuri newspaper reported that two destroyers and two patrolling helicopters will be dispatched to escort commercial Japanese vessels. The paper did not give a source for the information.

Somalia, a nation of about 8 million people, has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991 and then turned on each other. Its lawless coastline is a haven for pirates.

The order on Wednesday follows months of debate in Japan's parliament, which is divided over how to interpret the country's constitution.

Japan has been conducting a naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean since 2001 to support US-led forces in Afghanistan, but it briefly suspended that late last year after the opposition blocked an extension. Since January, the mission has been limited to refueling vessels making anti-terrorism patrols.