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Japan mulls assigning 2 SDF vessels to new Middle East mission

This photo shows the main gate of the Japanese Defense Ministry in Tokyo on Aug. 22, 2019. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan is eyeing assigning two Self-Defense Forces vessels to help protect Middle East waterways under a dispatch plan under consideration, a government source said Saturday.

An SDF ship currently in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Yemen to crack down on pirate activities will be sent on the planned new mission, joined by another ship to be dispatched from Japan, the source said.

The Defense Ministry does not want to newly send two or more ships from Japan to the Middle East given the growing significance for SDF activities in waters around Japan amid North Korean missile threats, according to the source.

The vessels will be allowed to use force to defend Japanese merchant vessels under attack, the source said.

Japan initially sent two vessels to the Gulf of Aden in 2009 but brought one back in 2016 as pirate incidents decreased.

The government said Friday it would not join a U.S.-led coalition to guard shipping traveling through the Strait of Hormuz amid tensions involving Iran.

The United States has formed a coalition to protect the Middle Eastern sea lanes following attacks on two oil tankers, one operated by a Japanese shipping firm, near the strait in June, for which Washington blamed Iran.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has said the Gulf of Oman, the northern part of the Arabian Sea and the eastern part of the Bab el-Mandeb strait, connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden would be potential locations for the dispatch.

Japan has refrained from making a decision on the U.S. initiative partly because it does not want to damage its traditionally friendly relations with Iran.

Sending SDF personnel overseas is a sensitive issue in Japan as entanglement in a foreign conflict could violate the country's war-renouncing Constitution.

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