The first contingent of Ground Self-Defense Force troops returned home on Wednesday from South Sudan as Japan ended its five-year participation in a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the African country.
A group of about 70 personnel from the 350-member unit arrived at a GSDF camp in the city of Aomori, where their division is based, after leaving the conflict-torn nation on Monday.
“I am relieved that we have been able to return safely,” said Maj. Kiwamu Ishii, as families and other GSDF members welcomed the troops at the camp. He said the security situation in the South Sudan capital of Juba, where Japanese troops have been based, is “stable.”
Families had been worried about the troops’ safety amid reports of deteriorating security in Juba, where more than 270 people were killed in July last year.
Tokyo has denied that the security situation was the reason for its decision to withdraw troops, saying they are pulling out because their help in building infrastructure is no longer necessary.
The pullout was announced last month, just four months after the government assigned the troops new roles under controversial security legislation, which expanded the SDF’s role overseas and was put into force in March last year.
SDF members have been given more leeway in their use of weapons, which was previously limited to self-defense. The GSDF unit in South Sudan was also given the mandate to rescue U.N. staff and others under attack if there is an urgent request.
Since Japanese troops are now leaving the peacekeeping mission, they have not had the occasion to carry out this expanded role in practice.
“We trained for (such rescues) prior to our deployment, so we had no worries,” Ishii said.
Current law allows SDF personnel to participate in peacekeeping operations only when a cease-fire agreement between warring parties is being maintained.
Some South Sudanese have expressed appreciation and others disappointment at the troops’ departure.
The remaining GSDF troops in South Sudan, who have been stationed there since around December to build roads and other infrastructure, are in the process of withdrawal. All members of the unit are expected to return by the end of May.
Once the withdrawal is completed, Japan will have no troops deployed on active U.N. peacekeeping missions.