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GSDF personnel, families concerned over new mission in S. Sudan

A member of a citizens' group, right, asks a passerby for a signature to urge a halt to the GSDF dispatch to South Sudan as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation in front of JR Aomori Station, on Nov. 15, 2016. (Mainichi)

AOMORI -- With the controversial "rush and rescue" mission assigned to the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) after the government approved the expanded role for such units taking part in U.N. peacekeeping operations (PKO) in South Sudan, GSDF members who will soon be dispatched to the East African country and their families have expressed concern over the new mission where members could engage in combat.

A replacement unit consisting mainly of the No. 9 division of the GSDF based in the city of Aomori will head to South Sudan on Nov. 20. The atmosphere in the northern city has been intense while residents are split in opinion over the GSDF's new mission.

A 79-year-old Aomori woman whose grandchild is a member of the No. 9 division expressed concern about the GSDF's expanded role, saying, "My grandchild could kill someone or be killed (while on mission)."

The woman says her grandchild used to talk to her about life in the GSDF, saying things like, "We have a strict curfew," but when she asked them if they would be going to South Sudan when the grandchild visited her this past summer, they only replied, "I've heard nothing," while looking at a smartphone screen.

"I believe my grandchild is prepared. But what if they get caught in the middle of combat?" the woman said.

Since it was decided in September that the Aomori-based division would be sent to South Sudan for the PKO, citizens' organizations have held protests and rallies to oppose the move and started signature-collecting campaigns, arguing that Aomori Prefecture residents could be dragged into war.

In the meantime, reactions from GSDF members vary. An experienced member who has been dispatched to Iraq recalled the time he was sent to the Middle East, saying, "People made a row at the time that it would be dangerous, but nothing serious happened (in Iraq for the Japanese troops). News coverage on South Sudan is only seen when the situation there worsens." The GSDF person added, "We train with and are paid by taxpayers' money. We can't just not go (to South Sudan) because people say it's dangerous."

During a ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the GSDF Aomori station on Oct. 16, a senior official of the No. 9 division touched on the U.N. operation in South Sudan and said, "Our roles and responsibilities keep expanding. We'll train hard as professionals." Individual members, however, remained discreet on their missions due partly to a gag order imposed on the troops, with one member telling a Mainichi Shimbun reporter who tried to hand them their business card, "I can't help you."

"I have to believe that the members will not shoot anyone or be shot to send them off (to South Sudan)," said Masaji Nara, 69, a former member of the No. 9 division who serves as the secretary-general of a citizens' group for parents of GSDF members in Aomori Prefecture. As the use of weapons was expanded among GSDF troops upon the recent Cabinet decision, Nara emphasized that the government needs to work out operations "so that the troops would not have to die" while on mission.

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