Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers early Wednesday gave up chasing two mystery trawlerlike vessels that had intruded into the nation’s territorial waters in the Sea of Japan before fleeing toward North Korea, Defense Agency officials said.

The officials also said Air Self-Defense Force E-2C early-warning aircraft confirmed by radar that more than two North Korean MiG-21 jets were flying toward the fleeing boats at 7:55 a.m. Wednesday. They would not state the number of E-2Cs dispatched.

The sea chase was terminated when the intruding ships, bearing the names of Japanese fishing boats, left Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, Defense Agency chief Hosei Norota said.

Japanese vessels had fired warning shots in vain to get the intruders to stop. By law, MSDF destroyers are only allowed to fire warning shots, and other shots that “will not cause human injuries,” unless they are directly shot at.

Later in the day, a government source said the two ships entered North Korean territorial waters. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka told an afternoon news conference that has not been confirmed yet. Government officials said they cannot conclude at this time if the ships belong to North Korea.

At 3:30 p.m., the Defense Agency said its operation concerning the two ships was officially ended.

Nonaka indicated Japan is ready to consider changes in current laws to cope with future intrusions. He noted that the legal limits on the Self-Defense Forces’ use of force was the reason the intruders were allowed to flee. A P-3C surveillance aircraft flying over the Sea of Japan was tracking the two ships by radar but at some point would be unable to monitor them, Nonaka said.

According to Norota, three MSDF destroyers gave up bird-dogging the vessel bearing the name No. 1 Taisei Maru as it left the ADIZ at 6:06 a.m. The boat fled toward North Korea after ignoring 22 warning shots fired by the destroyers and eight warning bombs dropped by SDF patrol aircraft, Norota said.

In an earlier press briefing, the defense chief said the MSDF destroyer Myoko stopped chasing the ship bearing the name No. 2 Yamato Maru,at 3:20 a.m. when it fled the ADIZ, also toward North Korea. The Myoko had fired 13 warning shots with 5-inch guns and SDF patrol aircraft had dropped four 150-kg bombs, Norota said.

The ADIZ is a demarcation inside which Japan would scramble aircraft to confront unidentified aircraft. It is not a maritime threshold, but the government decided not to continue the chase beyond it due to concerns that further pursuit might affect relations with neighboring nations, according to Defense Agency sources.

By international law, a nation has the right to chase a vessel that has violated its waters and inspect it unless the vessel enters another country’s territorial waters. Norota said that while he believes the sea patrol by the SDF — the first such operation in the forces’ history — will work as a significant deterrent to future intrusions, the legal limits on the SDF’s use of force was the reason the intruders were allowed to flee.

He said the SDF was not granted rights exceeding that of the Maritime Safety Agency to conduct patrols, making it impossible for the SDF to fire anything other than warning shots. The government, however, did consider firing on the boats’ rudders, but dropped the idea fearing the destroyers’ relatively powerful 5-inch guns might cause more damage or casualties — an action strictly banned under Japan’s defense laws.

The ship posing as the No. 1 Taisei Maru was spotted at 6:42 a.m. Tuesday by an MSDF P-3C antisubmarine aircraft on a regular patrol, while the No. 2 Yamato Maru was found by patrol aircraft at 9:25 a.m. off the Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa Prefecture.

Later Tuesday after receiving information from the MSDF, MSA patrol vessels sent to the scene fired the first warning shots. The MSA patrols were then unable to keep up with the two boats, which according to government officials hit a maximum speed of 35 knots.

It was the first time MSA vessels fired warning shots since 1953, when a patrol boat intercepted what Japan said was a Soviet spy ship off Cape Soya in the northern tip of Hokkaido.

The two unidentified boats — roughly 100 tons in size and 30 meters long — were carrying a large number of antennas and were flying no national flag, the Defense Agency said. A subsequent investigation by the government showed that the ship registered as the No. 2 Yamato Maru is currently operating off Hyogo Prefecture, and the No. 1 Taisei Maru was scrapped in 1994.

Defense Agency sources said that as long as the MSA, which handles sea patrols under the Transport Ministry’s jurisdiction, holds to its policy of not firing live rounds at vessels violating Japan’s waters, the SDF cannot take effective action even if allowed to assume the MSA’s role.

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