Japan on Friday ordered its military to prepare to intercept any dangerous debris that might fall on its territory if a rocket launch planned by North Korea goes wrong.
Pyongyang has said it will launch a communications satellite between April 4-8, but regional powers believe the real purpose is to test a long-range missile, the Taepodong-2, which is already on its launch pad at a North Korean missile base.
I have issued an order ... to prepare to destroy any object that might fall on Japan as a result of an accident involving a flying object from North Korea, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters after a meeting of Japan's Security Council.
North Korea has given international agencies notice that the rocket's planned trajectory should take it over Japan, dropping booster stages to its east and west. It has said any attempt to shoot down the rocket itself would be an act of war.
Hamada reiterated Japan's call for the reclusive state to cancel the launch and said Tokyo would do everything it could to protect the Japanese people. But he stressed that Japan would only act if the object threatened to fall on its territory.
In its only previous test flight in 2006, the Taepodong-2 either blew up or was deliberately destroyed after failing just after launch.
Japanese officials say the chances of debris falling on its territory are slim and have called on the public not to panic.
Top nuclear envoys from Japan, South Korea and the United States were to meet in Washington on Friday in a sign of growing concern over the launch, the first big test for U.S. President Barack Obama in dealing with the prickly North.
Russia said North Korea should abstain from testing the rocket and called for dialogue with Pyongyang, a day after Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cautioned the international community against making hasty decisions.
We understand that the current situation in the region of North-East Asia is tense, and this is why it would be better if our partners in North Korea abstained from this, from this launch, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin said.
Japan, the United States and South Korea have condemned the rocket plan and warned it would violate U.N. resolutions imposed on Pyongyang for earlier weapons tests.
North Korea faces a range of U.N. sanctions but many analysts doubt new ones would get past China -- the nearest Pyongyang has to a powerful ally -- in the Security Council.
Japan's constitution does not allow the military to intercept a missile if it is clearly heading elsewhere, but Tokyo would try to shoot down a missile aimed at Japanese territory or intercept any debris.
Japan began deploying its ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile batteries on Friday, with units leaving Iruma air base northwest of Tokyo to be positioned closer to the political and financial centers of the capital, a Defense ministry spokesman said.
Japan's two ballistic missile Defense ships were also set to leave the southern port of Sasebo on Saturday, Kyodo news agency said, but the ministry spokesman declined to comment.
Washington has said it could with high probability intercept any North Korean missile heading for U.S. territory if ordered to do so.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Mexico this week, said the launch would deal a blow to six-party talks to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme.
Those talks sputtered to a halt in December over disagreement on how to check the North was disabling its nuclear facilities.
North Korea warned that any action by the U.N. Security Council to punish it would be a hostile act.
A successful launch would be a huge boost at home to leader Kim Jong-il, whose illness last year -- widely thought to have been a stroke -- has raised questions over his grip on power.
(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Dean Yates and Valerie Lee)