TOKYO (Reuters) -- Japan will end its refueling mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan when its legal mandate expires in January, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa has said, a month before President Barack Obama visits Washington's close Asian ally.
"The law will expire in January. We will solemnly withdraw based on the law," a ministry official quoted Kitazawa as telling reporters.
It is the clearest statement so far by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's new government, which has pledged to take a diplomatic stance more independent of Washington, that it is set to end the nearly 8-year-old mission.
The mission supplies fuel and water to U.S. and other ships policing the Indian Ocean for weapons and drug smugglers, as well as terrorists.
The previous Liberal Democratic Party administration, during whose tenure the operation began, was trounced in an August election by Hatoyama's Democratic Party, which had opposed the mission in the past.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos said this month that Washington was open to discussing alternatives, which Japanese media reports have said could include job training to help Taliban fighters reenter civil society.
It was unclear, however, whether Kitazawa had spoken out of turn. Hatoyama's government has had trouble establishing a clear line of command concerning who articulates decisions since taking office last month on a platform that promised to put politicians, not bureaucrats, in the driver's seat on policy.
On October 12, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told reporters in Islamabad it would be difficult to submit a bill to extend the mission to an extra session of parliament that begins later this month, Kyodo news agency said.
"I think Minister Okada made his remark in the sense that that there may not be enough time for the law to be submitted in the extraordinary parliament session, and that is where we stand at this stage," a senior Foreign Ministry official said.
"But the government has not necessarily reached an agreement on whether there could be some sort of law to take care of it before the January 15 expiration," the official said.
Okada, on visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan this wek, pledged continued support for Afghanistan's reconstruction efforts and has repeatedly said that Tokyo would not "simply" extend the mission. But he has declined to elaborate on what he means.