• Kyodo

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A new batch of Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force troops began leaving for South Sudan on Sunday to take part in U.N. peacekeeping activities, with the members authorized to perform fresh roles in line with new security legislation.

Some 130 GSDF members left Aomori airport on Sunday as the first group of the 350-strong unit, which will replace the current Japanese troops, who are engaging in work to build roads and other infrastructure as part the U.N. mission, called UNMISS.

The group, including unit leader Col. Yoshiro Tanaka, will arrive in the South Sudan capital of Juba on Monday, while the remaining members will leave Japan through December. The new unit will take over the right of command from the incumbent unit on Dec. 12.

Japan has deployed GSDF units for engineering work as part of UNMISS since 2012. The new batch of troops is also an engineering unit, but the government has decided to give them two additional roles in line with the security legislation, which has given more leeway in the strictly restricted use of weapons by the Self-Defense Forces personnel during U.N. peacekeeping missions.

The Japanese troops can now go to the rescue of U.N. staffers and others under attack in response to an urgent request. They can also join foreign troops to defend a U.N. peacekeeping camp that is shared by Japan and other countries, even if GSDF members are not the direct target of attacks.

The Japanese government has said the rescue mission will be performed “in very limited cases,” such as when South Sudan security authorities or infantry units of U.N. peacekeeping operations cannot respond.

But concerns remain among the public that the new duties could lead the country’s troops to be embroiled in overseas military actions for the first time since World War II, in what could be criticized as an act that goes against the pacifist Constitution.

Adding to concerns is the security situation in South Sudan, which has been mired in conflict between government and rebel forces after gaining independence from Sudan in 2011.

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