Deputy Russian PM visits island claimed by Japan: official

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A top Russian official Monday visited two of the Pacific islands at the centre of a simmering dispute with Japan, in a trip aimed at bolstering their development that risks further angering Tokyo.

Igor Shuvalov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's influential deputy in charge of economic affairs, visited Kunashir and Iturup islands, two of the four Kuril Islands that are claimed by Japan, his spokesman told AFP.

Accompanied by senior government officials and businessmen, he was inspecting progress of a government programme to develop the islands through 2015, the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

"The main recipe for a region that is successful socially and economically is the strengthening of competition among small businesses and the development of infrastructure," Shuvalov said in comments relayed by his spokesman.

"A competitive atmosphere in the region should be friendly."

The visit risks further eroding ties between Tokyo and Moscow which were hit hard after President Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashir on November 1 in the first ever visit by a Russian leader to the territory when he pledged new investment for the islands.

The Kuril Islands, which lie north of Japan's Hokkaido island, have been controlled by Moscow since they were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II, but Tokyo claims the southernmost four as Japanese territory.

The sparsely populated islands, where residents eke out a threadbare living, are rich in gold and silver and lie in waters abundant in marine life.

Russia in recent years has become increasingly assertive in the row, saying the islands are an important part of its territory.

Medvedev's visit became the topic of talks between the Kremlin chief and Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Japan last month when Kan "voiced protest" over the trip.

The territorial dispute has hampered efforts to boost economic cooperation between the two states and Russia last month proposed to change the approach to the dispute, focusing on economics instead.

The businessmen who accompanied Shuvalov did not make any firm investment pledges, said the government spokesman, adding however it was a fact-finding mission for now.

"There are plans to come back and launch all those projects that will be born after the trip," he said.

In an apparent demonstration to underscore his country's territorial claims, Japan's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara flew near the islands earlier this month.

© 2010 AFP

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