, TOKYO, Oct 27 – Japan may send a naval refuelling mission now backing the NATO-led Afghan campaign to support anti-piracy efforts off Somalia next year, the defence minister said Tuesday.
Japan has since 2001 deployed a refuelling ship and an escorting warship in the Indian Ocean to aid the coalition fighting in Afghanistan, but a new centre-left government has said it will end the mission in January.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s party, which swept to power in August elections, has in the past spoken out against abetting "American wars" and promised alternative measures to help war-torn Afghanistan.
Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, asked Tuesday whether the Indian Ocean mission could be redeployed to help the international anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, said: "That is entirely possible."
It was likely that Japan would "use the skills and experience from the refuelling mission somewhere else," he told reporters.
The Indian Ocean mission has a combined crew of more than 300.
Japan now deploys two destroyers, with a total of 400 navy personnel, to protect busy commercial sea lanes threatened by pirates off Somalia.
Japan in March joined the United States, China and more than 20 other countries in the maritime operation against pirates who have attacked ships off the Horn of Africa, a key route leading to the Suez Canal.
The Japanese destroyers have escorted cargo vessels, although they have a limited mandate to use force under Japan’s pacifist constitution.