A contingent of Japanese troops arrived in South Sudan on Monday to join U.N. peacekeepers — a mission with an expanded role that critics fear could embroil them in their country’s first overseas fighting since World War II.
The newly arrived soldiers will help build infrastructure in the landlocked and impoverished country torn apart by years of civil war.
But, under new powers granted by the Japanese government last year, the troops will be allowed to respond to urgent calls for help from U.N. staff and aid workers. There are also plans to let them guard U.N. bases, which have been attacked during the fighting.
The 350 soldiers are taking over from a previous contingent of Japanese peacekeepers who served in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, but were not authorized to use force.
Tsuyoshi Higuchi, a Japanese military information official, told Reuters that 67 troops arrived Monday morning. Another 63 are expected to land in the afternoon. The last of the 350 troops are scheduled to arrive December 15.
The new mandate is in line with security legislation enacted last year to expand the overseas role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF), as the military is known. Critics said the move violates the country’s anti-war constitution and could embroil Japan in overseas conflict.
South Sudan has been mired in violence since clashes erupted in December 2013 between supporters of President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar.
Fighting largely along ethnic lines has caused the economy to sink, killed tens of thousands of people, displaced more than 2 million, and created a dire humanitarian situation, with nearly 5 million believed to be severely food insecure.
Machar returned to Juba this year after the sides reached a peace deal, but fresh fighting erupted outside the presidential palace on July 8 while Machar was inside.