JUBA – Gunfire erupted beside the camp for Japanese troops taking part in a U.N. peacekeeping operation in South Sudan in July, a spokesman for the African country’s military said Friday, a development that could fuel debate in Japan about the safety of such missions.
Tokyo is considering expanding the role of the Ground Self-Defense Force in conflict-mired South Sudan under controversial new security legislation that allows troops to be assigned to new, and possibly riskier, missions.
Giving Kyodo News a tour of the building in the capital, Juba, spokesman Lul Ruai said that on July 10 and 11, South Sudan government troops exchanged gunfire with about 20 rebel fighters in the building, which was under construction. Two government soldiers died.
“From this building, their snipers kept shooting at our soldiers,” Ruai said on the fifth floor of the seven-story building. The GSDF camp, about 100 meters from the building, can be seen from the floor.
Bullet marks remain on the building’s exterior walls.
The GSDF has said it found what seem to be stray bullets in the camp but has not revealed details of fighting in its vicinity.
The rebels’ “plan was to take control of the airport” near the GSDF camp, Ruai said, adding that the camp was not targeted.
“After they spent all ammunition, they abandoned weapons and ran away inside the UNMISS compound,” the spokesman said, referring to the compound of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan, where the GSDF camp is located. Internally displaced residents of Juba were also taking shelter in the compound.
Japanese troops have been involved since 2012 in UNMISS to help develop infrastructure after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
But since late 2013, South Sudan has been mired in conflict between government forces and rebels. In Japan, doubts have been growing about whether the GSDF mission has satisfied the preconditions for Japanese troops to be involved in a peacekeeping mission, such as the existence of a cease-fire.
Clashes between soldiers loyal to the South Sudanese president and antigovernment forces erupted in Juba in July, killing more than 270 people. None of the GSDF personnel were hurt in the fighting.
The Japanese government has defended its decision to have GSDF personnel operate in South Sudan.
“Armed conflict as defined under the (peacekeeping operation) cooperation law has not broken out in the area of activity, and we do not feel that the five principles (required for SDF participation) have been broken,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference in late July.
Japan is preparing to send its next batch of troops to South Sudan in November to replace the current unit. The possibility is growing they could be assigned riskier roles.
Under the new security legislation that came into force in March, SDF members are now able to engage in missions to rescue U.N. staffers and others under attack and to jointly defend peacekeepers’ camps with troops from other nations during U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Expanding the role of the SDF has been controversial in connection with the Constitution, which renounces war and bans the use of force to settle international disputes.