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 to have 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 its 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 decision to withdraw comes amid concern about the safety of Japanese troops in South Sudan.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga denied that was the reason for the decision.
"The decision is a result of our comprehensive considerations and not because of the deteriorating security situation," he said. "We have reached a certain point in the repair work.''
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 to end the mission.
The South Sudan mission was the longest for Japanese troops, who also have served in Golan Heights, Cambodia and other areas for post-cease-fire assistance limited to noncombat roles. Japanese opposition lawmakers and peace activists have criticized the Abe government for allegedly violating the country's war-renouncing principles by continuing the mission while clashes occurred in South Sudan.
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 neighboring Sudan in 2011. But the country plunged into ethnic violence in December 2013 when forces loyal to Kiir, a Dinka, started battling those loyal to Riek Machar, his former vice president who is a Nuer.
A peace deal signed in August 2015 has not stopped the fighting, and clashes last July between forces loyal to Kiir and Machar set off further violence. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and forced 3.1 million to flee their homes. An estimated 100,000 people are experiencing famine, and another 1 million people are on the brink of starvation.
The U.N. Security Council decided in August to send an additional 4,000 peacekeepers after clashes the previous month killed hundreds in South Sudan's capital, Juba. South Sudan initially objected to the force and delayed its deployment. Some progress on sending the extra troops has recently been made, and the deployment of an advance contingent of Rwandan forces is being finalized, according to a report by the U.N. secretary-general this week.