ABOARD THE SAZANAMI, Gulf of Aden (Kyodo) It has been roughly two months since the Maritime Self-Defense Force began patrolling the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden off Somalia.
Here on the deck of the Sazanami — one of two MSDF destroyers involved in the mission — tension was evident among the officers and sailors engaged in an unprecedented mission for the Self-Defense Forces.
On Saturday, about a dozen Japanese journalists were allowed aboard the Sazanami for the first time since it and the Samidare began escorting Japanese-related commercial vessels off the Horn of Africa.
The reporters first boarded the MSDF refueling ship Tokiwa at a port on the Arabian Peninsula. The Tokiwa has been deployed to the Indian Ocean to supply fuel to navy vessels from countries involved in antiterrorism efforts in and around Afghanistan. The Defense Ministry asked that the port’s name be kept secret for security reasons.
After a 21-hour voyage, the Tokiwa came into contact with the two destroyers at the eastern end of the gulf. It then refueled them while a sailor kept watch at a 12.7-mm machinegun on deck.
Amid sweltering heat and wind-whipped seas, the reporters were transferred to the Sazanami by helicopter shortly after noon.
Capt. Hiroshi Goto, who is leading the antipiracy mission, provided a glimpse of the reality in the region where roughly one-third of piracy attacks worldwide have been reported.
He said his flotilla gets some 10 radio reports a day from commercial ships being approached by suspicious vessels.
Many of the calls, he said, come from “high-risk” vessels that pirates find easy to climb aboard due to their relatively slow speeds and low decks that typically are only 5 meters above the water.
When a ship radios that it is being chased, a surveillance helicopter is dispatched. Sometimes the choppers spot small vessels readying boarding ladders, Goto said.
The MSDF cannot protect foreign vessels unrelated to Japan under current Japanese law, but it has checked in on them or warded off suspicious vessels approaching them on six occasions since late March. The ministry has justified the responses as humanitarian acts.
While previous SDF overseas missions entailed relatively low-risk activities, including logistic support, and no combat, the latest mission could pit the flotilla against armed pirates. This raises the possibility the MSDF may have to open fire for the first time.
“The pirate side has become less fearful of warships and helicopters, just as illustrated by a recent incident where a U.S. refueling ship was fired on,” said Goto. “I think my personnel are under pressure because the possibility of firing warning shots is increasing.”
While firing warning shots and shooting at pirates in self-defense are permitted under the Self-Defense Forces Law, such action may become an issue later in connection with the constitutional restrictions on the use of weapons abroad.
Shortly before 4 p.m., the 4,650-ton Sazanami and 4,550-ton Samidare began their 25th escort mission to guide five commercial vessels through the roughly 900-km stretch of the gulf to the mouth of the Red Sea.
Roughly 20 countries have sent warships off Somalia to counter the surge in piracy. According to the Foreign Ministry, 130 acts of piracy took place in the first five months of this year, well more than the 111 reported for all of last year.
Often armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles, sea bandits in the region take over cargo ships and tankers at gunpoint and demand huge ransoms.
About 10 percent of the roughly 20,000 ships that pass through the waters each year are believed to be Japanese-related tankers and cargo ships.
In March, a car carrier operated by a Japanese company came under attack from a suspected pirate vessel, but it managed to escape and no crew member was harmed.
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