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FUKUOKA (Kyodo) The first members of a Self-Defense Forces helicopter unit that will provide humanitarian relief to flood-hit Pakistan departed from Fukuoka airport on Saturday.

The 50 Ground Self-Defense Force members, who left on a commercial flight and are scheduled to arrive in the devastated area Sunday morning, are set to begin relief activities based in Multan, central Pakistan, in the latter half of this week, Japanese officials said.

A total of about 530 ground, air and maritime SDF troops will be mobilized for the mission, which will last around two months.

On Friday, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa ordered three UH-1 utility helicopters and three CH-47 carrier choppers to be sent to Pakistan to transport flood-affected local residents, relief goods and medicines, mostly within a radius of about 200 km from Multan.

The helicopters will be transported to Pakistan in sequence starting Monday, the officials said.

As the SDF troops will carry no weapons while engaging in disaster relief activities in line with government policy, the Pakistani military will be responsible for their safety.

Some 20 million people, or about 10 percent of Pakistan’s population, are estimated to have been affected by the floods, which have destroyed homes, washed away villages and knocked out critical infrastructure.

It is the first time for Japan to dispatch a GSDF helicopter unit overseas as part of natural disaster relief since 2005, when it sent helicopters to Pakistan to deal with the aftermath of a major earthquake.

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