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Japan Extends Afghan Refuelling Mission


TOKYO (Reuters) -- Japan's parliament has extended for a year a naval refueling mission in support of U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan, relieving government fears it could be forced to suspend the mission which may have hurt ties with Washington.

The extension of the mission providing free fuel to U.S. and allied ships patrolling the Indian Ocean comes as Japan prepares to withdraw its air force from an Iraq mission this month, ending its military support for the United States there.

"As a responsible member of the international community, it is clear that we need to actively keep playing a responsible role in the fight against terrorism, and it is certainly necessary to extend the refueling activities," said Tsuyoshi Takagi, a lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Washington has asked Japan to step up its involvement in Afghanistan by providing transport planes, Japanese media have reported, while Japan is also mulling a plan to send its navy to help protect ships from increasingly brazen pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia.

But any such missions are fraught with problems for Japan, whose U.S.-drafted post-World War II constitution strictly limits its military activities abroad, requiring a new law to be passed in each case.

The refueling mission was halted for almost three months from the end of last year, after the opposition-dominated upper house of parliament, many of whose members see the mission as a breach of the constitution, refused to vote on a previous extension.

This year, the main opposition Democrats and their smaller allies rejected the bill in the upper house.

That allowed the main ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) time to vote again in parliament's more powerful lower house to override the objection.

The opposition hope clearing a high-profile item from Prime Minister Taro Aso's agenda will push him toward holding an early election, which could put the Democrats in government for the first time, media say.

No election need be held until September, but the struggling prime minister, whose support rates have plunged to 20 percent, may have trouble maintaining his grip on power until then.
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