Japan ordered its naval ships on Thursday to withdraw from a refueling mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan as a political deadlock kept the government from meeting a deadline to extend the activities.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is caught between close ally Washington, which is pressing for enactment of a new bill to allow Japan's navy to keep providing free fuel for U.S. and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean, and a resurgent opposition set on blocking the new legislation now before parliament.

The Pentagon said this week that Japan's withdrawal would not affect its patrolling of the Indian Ocean for drug smugglers, gun runners and suspected terrorists.

But U.S. ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer, who has been lobbying hard for Japan to stay the course, has said a permanent halt would send a very bad message to the international community and to terrorists.

Japan must rejoin the international team to fight terrorism as soon as possible by enacting new legislation, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told a parliamentary panel debating a new law on the operations.

The naval mission -- now certain to be halted for months if not longer -- is sure to be on the agenda when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visits Japan next week as well as at a summit between Fukuda and President George W. Bush that media say will take place in Washington on November 16.

We will make our utmost effort to enact new legislation promptly so that we can resume our refueling activity as soon as possible, Fukuda said in a statement after the order was given.

Australia, which has almost 1,000 troops in Afghanistan and is a close ally of Washington and Tokyo, said Japan should extend the mission, but added it understood the debate in Japan.

We are hopeful that it may result in the resumption of Japan's contribution in this area, as an important part of Japan's increasingly active, and welcome, role in promoting global and regional security, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in a statement.


Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba ordered supply ship Tokiwa and an accompanying destroyer to head home after performing the last refueling operation under the current law on Monday. That law expires at midnight (11:00 a.m. EDT) on Thursday.

Japan has supplied fuel and water worth about 22 billion yen ($190 million) over the six years of the mission.

Tokyo is now considering fresh aid to Pakistan -- the only Islamic country taking part in the naval operations -- as well as to Afghanistan to offset return of its refueling ships.

The naval mission has become the focus of a domestic tug-of-war between Fukuda's ruling bloc and the main opposition Democratic Party, which together with its smaller allies, has vowed to vote against it in part because it lacks a U.N. mandate.

Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa rejected a plea to agree to the new law in a rare one-on-one chat with Fukuda on Tuesday.

The two are set to meet again on Friday to discuss the naval mission as well as a broader political deadlock that could spark an early election for the powerful lower house.

Overseas dispatches are controversial in Japan, where the military is restrained by the post-World War Two pacifist constitution. Japanese voters are divided over this one, with just under 50 percent in favor of extending it.

The fuel provided by Japan's supply mission accounted for about one-fifth of total fuel consumed by coalition vessels from December 2001 through February 2003, according to Pentagon data. Since then, it has accounted for just over 7 percent of the fuel consumed by coalition vessel.

($1=115.41 Yen)