TOKYO (AP) — Japan's Cabinet on Tuesday gave its approval for an additional mission for Japanese troops in South Sudan to assist U.N. peacekeepers with rescue operations, a task opponents say would risk embroiling the troops in international fighting in violation of the country's pacifist constitution.
The mission, which comes under a security law enacted last year, begins with the deployment of 350 troops to be dispatched in three waves beginning Sunday. They will replace troops who are returning to Japan.
Japan has dispatched troops to war-torn South Sudan since 2011, but their operation has been limited to construction projects in noncombat areas.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has been expanding the military's international role, but opponents say this not only puts Japanese soldiers at greater risk, but also violates the country's post-World War II pacifist constitution.
Part of the troops' new assignment is for them to help rescue U.N. staff or nongovernment organization personnel under attack. Tuesday's approval would also allow Japanese soldiers to join their foreign counterparts to defend a shared U.N. peacekeeping camp.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told reporters that the new assignment does not require Japanese soldiers to rescue other foreign troops under attack. She said that Japan is not obligated to respond to all urgent calls, and that the troops can refuse in case the situation is deemed too dangerous.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that the additional mission is "extremely important" because there might be instances requiring Japanese troops to rescue Japanese civilians.
He said South Sudan's security situation remains "extremely harsh," but that conditions in the country's capital, Juba, where Japanese troops are operating, are "relatively calm."