September 03, 2004 11:14
In a move that Moscow has criticized, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has sailed close to Russian-held islands that Japan claims as its own.
Peering through binoculars, Mr. Koizumi got a close-up, but foggy, view of the islands off the coast of Hokkaido. The islands have been in Russian hands since the closing days of World War II.
The prime minister says he hopes his brief trip aboard a Japan Coast Guard boat will be a catalyst for resuming stalled talks with Moscow on returning the islands to Tokyo's control.
Mr. Koizumi says that since Japan and Russia live a stone's throw from each other he would like to see the two neighbors live in harmony.
Later, back on shore, he added that Russian President Vladimir Putin should be aware that reclaiming the islands is an issue that affects all of Japan.
Mr. Koizumi is the third Japanese prime minister to view the four small disputed islands - but his predecessors inspected them from the air. His trip was cut short because of fog and rough seas.
Officials say he originally intended to become the first Japanese premier to set foot on the islands but the plan was scrapped, apparently because of concern it would anger Russia.
Later in the day, Mr. Koizumi met former residents of the disputed islands and their descendants in the town of Nemuro, on Hokkaido's east coast. About 17,000 Japanese residents fled or were deported from the islands when the Soviet Union seized them.
The dispute over the islands - called the Northern Territories by Japan and the Southern Kurils by Russia - has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding a peace treaty to formally end their World War II hostilities.
Earlier this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Mr. Koizumi's trip would complicate treaty negotiations.
The topic is to be on the agenda when President Putin makes a trip to Japan next February.
In the meantime, Mr. Koizumi is seeking to improve economic ties with Moscow. He is lobbying Russia to approve a multi-billion dollar oil pipeline from Siberia to its Pacific Coast. But Russia has made no commitment about the project and is considering sending the oil to China instead.
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