TOKYO, March 31, 2009 (AFP) - Japan has started its anti-piracy mission off Somalia, the defence minister said Tuesday, launching an operation that could see its military in combat abroad for the first time since World War II.
Japan joins the United States, China, European Union states and others to fight pirates who have attacked ships off the Horn of Africa in the Gulf of Aden, a key maritime route leading to the Suez Canal.
"It's very good the mission had a smooth start," said Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada. "We will continue to stay on our guard."
Two Japanese destroyers carrying 400 troops late Monday began escorting five Japanese-operated foreign-flag vessels - three automobile carriers and two tankers, a defence ministry official told AFP.
A day earlier a European anti-piracy unit arrested seven Somali marauders who had tried to capture a German oil tanker.
Japan's 4,650-tonne Sazanami and 4,550-tonne Samidare would escort the five ships for about 900 kilometres (560 miles), the official said.
The operation would last for two days and would take the ships westward towards the Red Sea, Kyodo News reported.
The destroyers, equipped with two patrol helicopters and two speedboats, left Japan early this month for the region, which has the world's busiest shipping lanes, used by around 2,000 Japanese ships every year.
Under Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, its troops can use force only for self-defence and to protect Japanese interests, defined as its nationals, ships and cargo.
The government earlier this month submitted a new law that would widen the scope of force that its military personnel can use against pirates and allow them to also protect foreign vessels and nationals.
But it remains unclear when the bill will be taken up in parliament.
Japan's major past overseas missions - including in Iraq, near Afghanistan, and as UN peacekeepers - have been largely for logistical and support purposes such as refuelling, transport and reconstruction.