Japan to launch coastguard unit of 10 patrol boats for disputed isles

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's coastguard said on Tuesday it would create a special unit comprising 10 new large patrol boats to boost its surveillance of an island chain at the centre of a territorial row with China.

The force, to be completed over three years, will consist of about 600 personnel and include an additional pair of existing helicopter-carrier vessels that are to be refitted, a coastguard spokesman said.

Chinese government ships have regularly circled the Tokyo-administered islands - known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China - and entered Japanese territorial waters since Tokyo nationalised some of the chain in September, stoking a flare-up in the long-running sovereignty row.

Japanese patrol boats, mostly from the Japan Coast Guard's Okinawan branch, have tried to chase away the Chinese ships in waters of the East China Sea.

"We see it as necessary to assign large-scale patrol boats specially to cope with the situation in which Chinese government ships have become ever present in waters surrounding the Senkakus," the spokesman said.

Four of the 10 new boats are already under construction. Funding to build the six others was included in an extra government budget approved this month.

About 500 newly hired personnel, to be added between next year and 2016, will join another 100 crew members on the helicopter-carrying boats, the spokesman said.

The new unit is to be based primarily in Okinawa's Ishigaki island, some 175 km southeast of the disputed chain's main island.

The coastguard's Okinawa unit has about 900 personnel.