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Island visit stokes Russian-Japanese tensions

Russia threatened to strain ties with Japan on Wednesday after President Dmitry Medvedev announced his intention to visit the Russian-controlled Kuril islands, parts of which have been claimed by Japan since the end of World War II.


AFP - President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday said the Kuril Islands were an important part of Russia and he planned a visit, sparking concern in Japan which claims part of the Pacific archipelago.

Medvedev said he had been hoping to visit the islands -- the southernmost four of which are claimed by Japan -- on his current trip to the Far East region but the plan had been thwarted by bad weather.

"This is a very important region of our country," Medvedev told reporters in the main city of Russia's volcanic Kamchatka peninsula just north of the contested islands.

He said the weather around the islands -- which are often blighted by fog -- was not suitable for flying at the moment. "But we will do it, we will definitely go there in the nearest future," he said.

The Kuril Islands, which lie north of Japan's Hokkaido island, have been controlled by Moscow since they were seized by Soviet troops in 1945 but their status is a major problem in Moscow-Tokyo relations.

Japan's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara warned that a presidential visit to the islands would "severely hurt ties", the Kyodo News agency reported.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, the top government spokesman, said at a regular press conference: "We have communicated our country's stance to the Russian side through various channels."

Asked if Japan wanted Medvedev to stay away from the islands, he said: "To sum it up, that's correct."

The archipelago of some 56 islands cascades down from the tip of the Kamchatka peninsula towards Hokkaido island from which the southernmost island is only a few kilometres distant.

The dispute surrounds the southernmost four islands -- known in Russian as Iturup, Shikotan, Habomai and Kunashir and which are collectively known in Japan as the Northern Territories.

Japan does not contest Russia's sovereignty over the northernmost islands but has repeatedly demanded the return of the four southernmost islands.

Russian and Japanese officials have repeatedly expressed frustration that the dispute has prevented relations reaching their full potential but summit meetings over the last years have failed to make any progress in the dispute.

The row has also prevented Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II.

Medvedev's comments, his strongest on the dispute since coming to power on 2008, indicate that Russia is in no mood to give ground on the disputed territories.

According to the website of Russia's Far East Sakhalin region, the southernmost islands have a population of 10,000 people with fishing one of the main local industries.

Japan has also been sparring with China for the past three weeks in another territorial row, centred on islands located between Japan's Okinawa island and Taiwan which are called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

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