• Kyodo

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Defense Minister Tomomi Inada on Friday ordered the Self-Defense Forces to begin their withdrawal from South Sudan, where they were deployed for five years as part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission.

The fledgling African country gained independence from Sudan in 2011, and the Ground Self-Defense Force was tasked with building roads and other infrastructure while stationed in Juba, the capital.

As part of the procedure, however, the government decided at a Cabinet meeting the same day to extend the participation of the GSDF’s civil engineering unit for two more months through May 31.

The Defense Ministry said in a statement that the South Sudan government’s efforts to bring stability to the country are making progress and that the deployment of the SDF civil engineering units was unprecedentedly long for a U.N. peacekeeping mission.

But the ministry also said it will continue to make limited contributions to U.N. efforts in the country by sending SDF officers to work at the mission’s headquarters.

Japan’s participation has been widely debated in Japan in light of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial legal push to allow Japanese troops to play bigger roles overseas via two divisive security laws that took force last March.

As part of this, the GSDF unit was given the mandate to perform unprecedented armed rescues should U.N. staff and others come under attack. This was done based on the recently relaxed criteria on weapons use.

But critics have said the new tasks could see Japanese troops embroiled in overseas conflicts for the first time since World War II, violating the pacifist nature of the Constitution.

Concerns have also lingered over security in South Sudan, which has been mired in a civil war. A peace deal was signed in August 2015 but renewed fighting in Juba in July 2016 killed more than 270 people and led many to flee their homes.

Abe announced the withdrawal plan on March 10. He has denied that deteriorating security was the reason for his decision. By law, the SDF can only serve in areas where a cease-fire is in place.

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