TOKYO -- Japan tightened security at hundreds of airports, nuclear plants and government facilities Friday, dispatching armed riot police to guard against possible terror attacks as the country dispatches troops on a humanitarian mission to Iraq.
A National Police Agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the heightened security but refused to say whether the government had new information about a possible terror strike. He said it was the highest show of security in Japan since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
About 650 vital facilities including U.S. bases in Japan were put under increased surveillance, the Yomiuri newspaper and other media reported. Agency spokesman could not be reached Saturday to confirm that figure.
Dispatched a destroyer
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Japan was stepping up security ahead of sending troops to Iraq. Japan dispatched a destroyer and an amphibious vessel for the Middle East on Friday.
"Japan for the last few weeks has been taking some measures to improve the police preparedness as they prepare to deploy troops to Iraq," he said. "Japan has kept us apprised of the measures they are implementing.
"The measures they are implementing are relating to police preparedness," McClellan added.
The tougher security also follows a failed attempt to hit the Defense Agency with projectiles earlier in the week and precedes an expected verdict in the trial of a cult leader accused of plotting a 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subways.
The security move sent a shiver through global financial markets, knocking the Japanese yen to 10-week lows against the U.S. dollar.
The National Police official said riot police armed with automatic rifles will guard Tokyo and Kansai international airports and nuclear power and reprocessing facilities.
A police officer at the Tokyo airport confirmed Saturday that riot police had been deployed but declined to elaborate.
Japan is sending 1,000 air, sea and ground forces for the mission in Iraq, its largest military deployment since World War II. An advance team of 30 soldiers is already in Iraq.
Many fear that dispatch could draw terrorist attacks in Japan, and last November an alleged al-Qaida operative threatened to attack Tokyo if it sent troops to Iraq.
On Tuesday assailants apparently attempted to fire projectiles at Japan's Defense Agency. Two blasts were heard near the Agency, and police later found two projectile launchers. There were no injuries or damage, but local media reported that a leftist group opposed to Japan's Iraqi mission had claimed responsibility.
The move also comes ahead of the verdict next Friday in the case of Shoko Asahara, the former leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subways that killed 12 people.
Police earlier this week raided offices of the cult, now named Aleph, concerned it could be planning reprisals if Asahara is convicted. Prosecutors have demanded the death penalty.