( AFP ) - Japan said Thursday it will order home ships engaged on a refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean, halting the close US ally's main role in the "war on terror".
Japan, which has been officially pacifist since the end of World War II, has supplied fuel to US and other forces operating in Afghanistan under legislation allowing participation in post-September 11, 2001 operations there.
That legislation expires Thursday, and could not be extended because the opposition, which controls one house of parliament, vowed Japan should not take part in "American wars."
Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba will issue orders at 3:00 pm (0600 GMT) for Japan's two ships in the Indian Ocean -- the Kirisame destroyer and the Tokiwa oiler -- to return to Japan, the government said.
"It is very regrettable and sad that the operation by our country's Maritime Self-Defence Force is ceasing," Ishiba said in parliament, using the official name for the pacifist nation's navy.
"I keenly feel my own inability" to persuade the opposition to agree to extend the mission, he said.
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda argues that Japan has to play a greater role in ensuring global security as it is the world's second largest economy and relies on the Middle East for nearly all of its oil.
Fukuda will issue a statement to be relayed to foreign embassies in Tokyo stressing that he wants to resume the mission, chief government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura said.
"As a government we will make maximum efforts for the activity to resume under new anti-terror legislation in both the lower and upper houses," Machimura said.
The withdrawal comes amid growing criticism across coalition nations to the deadly military campaign against remnants of Afghanistan's extremist Taliban regime. Public opinion is sharply divided in Japan on the naval deployment.
The German parliament last month extended the country's troop deployment despite waning public support.
But Japan is in a unique political situation. The opposition in July won control of one house of parliament on a backlash over a raft of scandals under the government of then prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Abe resigned in September in part due to the opposition's refusal to support an extension of the Indian Ocean mission.
While Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition still enjoys a wide majority in the more powerful lower house, the opposition can use its newfound control of the upper house to stall legislation.
Main opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa -- himself a longtime proponent of an active military role for Japan -- has vowed to press Fukuda until he calls early general elections.
Ozawa's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in turn accused the government of politicising the dispute.
"The battleships are coming home and they want to put the blame on the DPJ. This is an Afghan trap to make the DPJ look evil," said Kenji Yamaoka, the party's parliamentary affairs chief.
Japan first ordered the Indian Ocean mission under legislation passed after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
The deployment at the time was groundbreaking for Japan, although it later went a step further and sent troops, since withdrawn, on a non-combat reconstruction mission to Iraq.
Japan supplied 484,000 kiloliters of oil to vessels from 11 countries, including the United States and Pakistan, between December 2001 and the end of August.
The government has proposed a compromise under which Japan would provide support only to ships policing the Indian Ocean. But the opposition has refused a quick response, saying it prefers to debate the issue in parliament.