TOKYO, Jan 6 (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeated his plans to deploy the Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East to ensure the safety of its ships, even as tensions in the region erupt in the wake of the United States’ killing of one of Iran’s top military commanders.
At a televised news conference on Monday, Abe called on nations involved to make diplomatic efforts to ease tensions and avoid further escalation.
“Tensions are rising in the Middle East and I am deeply worried. Further escalation should be avoided and I call on all parties concerned to exhaust all diplomatic effort to ease tensions,” Abe told reporters in Ise, central Japan.
“We plan to dispatch Self-Defense Forces to this region to strengthen information gathering and secure the safe passage of Japan-related ships,” Abe said, reiterating a plan unveiled last month ahead of the latest flare-up in tensions.
The United States last week killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport, an attack that took long-running hostilities between Washington and Tehran into uncharted territory and raised the spectre of wider conflict in the Middle East.
The Japanese government announced late last month it will send a warship and patrol planes to the Middle East, from which it sources nearly 90% of its crude oil imports.
Japan, a U.S. ally that has maintained friendly ties with Iran, has opted to launch its own operation rather than join a U.S.-led mission to protect shipping in the region.
A Japanese defense ministry official has said the government aims to start the operation of the patrol planes sometime in January, while the destroyer will likely begin activities in the region in February.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Michael Perry)