TOKYO — Japan is ending its peacekeeping mission in troubled South Sudan after five years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Friday.
Abe said Japan would not renew the mission after the current rotation returns in May. The 350-person team has focused on road construction.
The team, which arrived in South Sudan in November, was Japan's first with an expanded mandate to use force if necessary to protect civilians and U.N. staff. The Japanese military's use of force is limited by the post-World War II constitution.
Abe said Japan would continue to assist South Sudan in other ways such as with food and humanitarian support, and will keep some personnel at the U.N. peacekeeping command office.
"As South Sudan enters a new phase of nation-building, we have decided that we can now put an end to our infrastructure building efforts," Abe told reporters.
The announcement came amid concern about the safety of the Japanese troops in South Sudan. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, however, denied that led to the decision.
"The decision is a result of our comprehensive considerations and not because of the deteriorating security situation," he said.
Ateny Wek Ateny, a spokesman for South Sudan President Salva Kiir, said he was not aware of the Japanese decision. Japanese officials said Tokyo has notified both South Sudan's government and the United Nations of its decision.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq confirmed that Japan informed the U.N. that it was withdrawing its roughly 350-member engineering contingent at the end of its current rotation in May.
"They've been in that post for many years and they've been performing a very valuable function and have been a key part of the efforts by the U.N. mission there to protect civilians," he said. "We appreciate the work that they've done, and certainly we'll continue to engage with the government of Japan to make sure that Japan can contribute usefully to other peacekeeping missions in the future."
Haq was asked what message Japan's withdrawal sends in light of U.N. officials raising alarm bells about the risk of genocide in South Sudan.
"I don't think it needs to send an overall message," he said. "It's a fact of life that different countries contribute troops and rotate them out at different times. We'll try to make up for the loss of that engineering component as quickly as we can."
Japanese defence officials have recently come under fire over their reluctance to explain the deteriorating security situation in the area where Japan's troops operate. The peacekeepers' daily log from last July, which the defence ministry initially said had been destroyed, described nearby clashes and concern about becoming embroiled in the fighting. Defence Minister Tomomi Inada has repeatedly refused to acknowledge any local combat action.
Opposition lawmakers and peace activists have accused the government of trying to cover up the worsening safety situation. They say the government violated Japan's war-renouncing constitutional principles by continuing with the mission despite the nearby fighting.
Japan's earlier missions in South Sudan and other areas, including Golan Heights and Cambodia were limited to post-cease-fire assistance and noncombat roles.
The departure of the Japanese peacekeepers is a setback for international support of South Sudan's government. In a speech last month, Kiir singled out Abe and Japan for "continued support to the government and people of South Sudan."
Hopes were high that South Sudan would have peace and stability after its independence from neighbouring Sudan in 2011. But the country plunged into ethnic violence in December 2013 between forces loyal to Kiir and those loyal to his former vice-president .
A peace deal signed in August 2015 has failed, and clashes last July between the two forces set off further violence, killing tens of thousands of people and forcing 3.1 million to flee their homes. An estimated 100,000 people are experiencing famine, and 1 million others are on the brink of starvation.
The U.N. Security Council decided in August to send 4,000 more peacekeepers after clashes the previous month killed hundreds in South Sudan's capital, Juba. Some progress was mentioned in a U.N. secretary-general's report this week.
Associated Press writers Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo, Cara Anna in Johannesburg, Justin Lynch in Kampala, Uganda and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press