Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Jittery Japan sends more troops

IMAGE The attacks in Madrid have raised fears that troops in Iraq may make Japan a terrorist target, and officials are keen to stress the military's humanitarian work

REUTERS , TOKYO

Japan prepared yesterday to send its largest contingent of soldiers to date to help rebuild Iraq, a day after Tokyo vowed to stay on guard against terror attacks in wake of bombings in Madrid.

Around 190 ground troops were greeted by families and fellow army personnel waving Japanese flags and banners as they arrived by bus at Chitose air base on the northern island of Hokkaido.

The troops, including around 10 women, will depart later in the day on a humanitarian mission that critics say violates Japan's pacifist constitution.

After training in Kuwait the troops will join around 250 others who are building a base near the town of Samawa in southern Iraq.

The latest dispatch comes as Japan steps up efforts to win understanding among people in Arab world for its riskiest overseas military mission since World War II.

Japan is to air brief ads on Qatar-based al-Jazeera television to stress that Japanese troops are being sent to Iraq for humanitarian aid and not for combat.

The latest dispatch comes at a time of re-newed jitters in Japan about possible attacks on its soil.

Japan has been on heightened security alert since late last year when the government decided to send troops to Iraq, and concern mounted after media reports said al-Qaeda had threatened to strike at the heart of Tokyo in retaliation.

Japan's non-combat mission could eventually involve around 600 ground troops in Iraq and a total deployment of about 1,000 in the region.

Security concerns came to the fore after bomb blasts ripped through four packed commuter trains in Madrid on Thursday, killing nearly 200 people and wounding almost 1,500.

Japan, one of the closest allies of the US in Asia, said later that authorities need to be on guard against possible attacks.

Japan has already raised security at key locations such as nuclear power plants, government facilities and US bases.

Officials said they did not plan to take any new steps after the Madrid bombings, but remained vigilant.

"We are taking best possible steps for security now," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told reporters on Friday.

"But terrorist acts, by nature, aim for any cracks so we need to think about various issues so that won't happen," he said.

Although Spain says the Basque separatist group ETA remains the prime suspect, a purported al-Qaeda letter claiming responsibility stoked concerns in Japan, which was one of the countries mentioned in the letter.

Japan is also worried about attacks on its nationals in Iraq.

In late November, two Japanese diplomats were gunned down in northern Iraq near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

Hackles were raised when two Japanese students were detained and later released by police in Samawa on Thursday despite a Foreign Ministry advisory two days before that warned of possible attacks in Samawa and urged all Japanese civilians to leave Iraq.

"I don't think it's good to go there on something like a sightseeing jaunt," Fukuda told reporters on Friday.

Dutch military officials in Samawa told Japan's Defense Ministry the students had been protesting against the US-led occupation of Iraq, Kyodo news agency quoted Japanese officials as saying.

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