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The Defense Ministry might divert a refueling ship engaged in U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in the Indian Ocean to back its expected antipiracy mission off Somalia, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said Tuesday.

The Maritime Self-Defense Force ship is refueling destroyers from Japan and ships from other nations, but sending it to the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden might provoke criticism that the missions are being mismanaged.

“Although we are not yet at the stage to state with any certainty, we are considering various options,” Hamada told a news conference.

On the basis of a special law passed to get Japan involved in the U.S.-led antiterror campaign, MSDF supply ships and destroyers have been deployed to the Indian Ocean to provide fuel and water to foreign navies involved in the campaign in and around Afghanistan.

“We acquired MSDF supply ships to refuel MSDF destroyers in the first place,” Vice Defense Minister Kohei Masuda said Monday. “But because there may be other aspects on whether we should have them do it in real-life operations, we are considering the option now.”

MSDF Chief of Staff Adm. Keiji Akahoshi stressed Tuesday the merits of using the supply ship in the Indian Ocean to support the planned antipiracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

“If the ships to be deployed to combat pirates can receive supplies from the supply ship that’s been deployed under the antiterrorism law, I think it will enhance flexibility in unit operations quite a bit,” he said.

Japan wants to deploy two destroyers off Somalia to protect Japan-related ships from pirates. The deployment will initially be authorized under a maritime police action provision in the Self-Defense Forces Law.

Hamada repeated his plan to launch the destroyers around early March on the assumption that the Diet will quickly pass a government antipiracy bill, which has yet to be submitted, that will allow him to send the ships into harm’s way with greater confidence.

Because the scope of the current law is limited, the MSDF’s capabilities during the antipiracy mission will be severely restricted, especially regarding its inability to protect unrelated ships. But Hamada has indicated he will not dispatch the warships unless he is convinced the antipiracy bill, which is expected to give the flotilla greater leeway to use its weapons, is on the way.

Japan began the Indian Ocean refueling mission in December 2001 under a special law passed after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. The mission ended in November 2007 but resumed after a new law was enacted in January 2008.

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