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Japanese navy ship returns home

TOKYO -- The first of two navy ships returned home to Japan on Thursday from the Indian Ocean after the country's six-year mission in support of coalition forces in Afghanistan was scuttled by opposition in parliament earlier this month.

The destroyer Kirisame and its crew of about 200 returned to Sasebo port in southwestern Japan to an honor band and a crowd of welcoming family members.

"We have finished our mission, and we are home," said Yuji Fukuhara, the Kirisame's captain.

The refueler Tokiwa will arrive Friday at a Tokyo port, where the Defense Ministry will hold a larger ceremony to be attended by Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba.

The return of the Kirisame marked the end of a mission that began in 2001 and underscored a deep rift in Japan's government over how far this country should go in supporting the global war on terror.

The mission was abruptly halted on Nov. 1, after opposition parties raised concerns it was too broad and possibly violated Japan's pacifist constitution. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, a staunch supporter of bolstering Japan's security efforts abroad, has vowed to resume the mission quickly.

The U.S. has also been pushing for a resumption, but says the withdrawal of the ships will have no significant impact on operations in Afghanistan.

"Unfortunately, we have to come to a point where we have to welcome them home, but they were engaged in work for a long time in a ifficult environment," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said.

Fukuda pledged to win parliamentary support for a new bill that would allow Japan's contingent to make a quick return to the region.

"I want proceedings to proceed smoothly," Fukuda told reporters. Earlier Thursday, however, opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa told reporters his party would not support a new mission.

Last week, Japan's lower house of parliament approved a resumption of a watered-down mission in the Indian Ocean, but the legislation is now in the opposition-controlled upper house.

The new mission would be limited to refueling and supplying water to craft used in monitoring and inspecting vessels suspected of links to terrorism or arms smuggling. Ships would not refuel coalition vessels directly involved in troop activities in Afghanistan.

During its six-year mission, Japan provided about 490,000 kiloliters (129 million gallons) of fuel in the Indian Ocean to coalition warships, including those from the U.S., Britain and Pakistan, according to the Defense Ministry.

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