Japanese ship leaves port on Afghan mission

Yokosuka, January 24, 2008 (Reuters): Triumphant Japanese officials waved off a naval destroyer headed for the Indian Ocean on Thursday, where it will resume a refuelling mission in support of U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.

Japanese vessels had been forced to stand down for almost three months after a legal mandate ran out in November and the powerful opposition Democratic Party stalled on the extension of the law.

"These activities in the Indian Ocean are directly linked to the stability of the Middle East, on which we rely for natural resources, and are directly linked to our national interests," Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba told assembled guests and naval personnel.

A brass band played and families looked on as the grey Murasame slipped slowly out of the Japanese naval base at Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, with sailors lining the decks.

The deadlock between the ruling bloc, which controls the lower house of parliament, and the opposition-controlled upper house dragged on for months, as the Democrats argued the mission breached Japan's pacifist constitution.

The stress of navigating the dispute through the divided parliament led to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's abrupt resignation in September with a disgestive complaint.

His successor, Yasuo Fukuda, under pressure from the United States, pushed the bill through parliament by passing it a second time in the lower house with a two thirds majority, a move critics said amounted to bullying.

A smiling Abe was among the guests at Thursday's departure ceremony.

The Murasame will join forces with a support ship, which is to set sail on Friday and will provide oil and water for vessels participating in U.S-led antiterrorism operations under a new one-year legal mandate.