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NATO chief urges Japan to support Afghan efforts

Tokyo, December 13, 2007 (AFP): The head of NATO called Thursday for Japan's support for efforts to quell insurgency in Afghanistan amid intense debate in this pacifist nation about how to contribute to global security.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer urged closer ties between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Japan, the world's second largest economy.

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda told the NATO chief in a meeting his government was working to push through legislation to resume an Indian Ocean naval refuelling mission in support of US-led operations in Afghanistan.

"We are doing all we can to enact new legislation for early resumption of the mission," Fukuda said, according to a Japanese statement.

"We highly appreciate the Japanese refuelling assistance to the NATO members," Scheffer replied, after earlier calling for the mission to be resumed.

"I would hope that Japan... has not yet reached the limit of its possibilities in the political sense of participating in the actual operations in Afghanistan," Scheffer said in an earlier speech.

Fukuda's government was forced to call home the ships last month after the opposition, which controls one house of parliament, refused to support an extension of the mandate authorising the mission.

The opposition argues that officially pacifist Japan should not be part of "American wars" that are not authorised by the UN Security Council.

Instead, opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa has said Japan should be able to join the UN-backed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO's peace-keeping force in Afghanistan.

Scheffer said he hoped to see debate "on what Japan could do more (of) in Afghanistan under the banner of the United Nations, under the banner of ISAF."

More than 50,000 international troops mainly operating under the NATO-led peace-keeping force are helping the Afghan government in its battle against resurgent Taliban extremists.

But the NATO chief also said he understood Japan's caution about how far to deviate from its official pacifism.

"We make it very clear that these are sensitive national issues. They are for Japan alone to resolve," he said in the speech.

Japan's constitution says that the country forever renounces the right to wage war.

Japan sent troops to Iraq on a reconstruction mission but the forces were protected by soldiers from allied nations and returned home last year without firing a single shot.

The NATO chief was due also to meet separately with Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba and Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura later Thursday as part of a three-day visit.

In his speech, Scheffer stressed the need for stronger relations between Japan and NATO.

"In the 21st century, NATO is becoming more and more important for a nation like Japan," he said. "Because we are basically defending the same universal values."

"I can assure you as a secretary general of NATO that all the 26 allies of NATO are very much interested in strengthening the bonds between Japan and NATO for the security of all our people's," he said.

Fukuda's predecessor Shinzo Abe pledged to play a wider role in NATO's peace-keeping when he visited the organisation's headquarters in January.

But he resigned in September after a slew of domestic scandals and an upper house election defeat.