Japan, Russia leaders meet amid island row

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The leaders of Russia and Japan met Saturday seeking to mend ties after a flare-up in a long simmering territorial row, with President Dmitry Medvedev proposing they forge closer economic bonds.

Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan however "voiced protest" over Medvedev's visit this month to one of four islands that have been at the centre of a dispute ever since the end of World War II, a senior Japanese official said.

When Medvedev asked Kan to visit Russia some time next year, Kan told him "he would consider it", Japan's Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama told reporters after the meeting on the sidelines of a regional summit.

Medvedev infuriated Japan when on November 1 he made the first trip by a Russian leader to the southern Kuril islands, which are called the Northern Territories by Japan and have stood in the way of a post-WWII peace treaty.

Russia in recent years has become increasingly assertive in the row, saying the islands, which are rich in gold and silver and lie in waters abundant in marine life, are an important part of its territory.

The sparsely populated islands, where residents eke out a threadbare living, are thought to contain significant deposits of hydrocarbons.

According to Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Medvedev told Kan that "it's best to do without emotional statements and diplomatic gestures as they do not help the case at all, rather to the contrary".

Medvedev had "proposed to change the approach on the problem... and put the economy at the forefront," Lavrov said. He added that Kan had "agreed that there is a need to elevate" economic relations.

The Kurils are a long chain of islands that stretch south of Russia's Kamchatka peninsula. The southernmost four were seized by the Soviet Union at the close of World War II and are controlled by Russia.

The Russian president's visit to the islands came at a sensitive time for Japan, which has also faced a tense territorial dispute with China.

Medvedev's spokeswoman Natalia Timakova told reporters this week that the Russian position on the islands remained unchanged.

A Kremlin statement released to reporters in Yokohama said "the main problem on the path to reaching agreement (on the dispute) are the unjustified territorial claims to the South Kuril islands put forward by Tokyo."

Kremlin-connected analysts say the talks are at a dead end and if Tokyo does not want to develop closer business ties with Russia, China would be only too happy to fill the void.

Despite the tensions, Medvedev on Saturday oversaw the signing of a one-billion-dollar deal with Japanese and Chinese firms for a fertiliser plant.

Russian government-affiliated Ammoni signed a contract with Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Sojitz Corporation and China National Chemical Engineering Corporation to build a plant producing ammonia and methanol.

The deal -- which a Kremlin spokeswoman said will see the construction of the first major fertiliser plant in 20 years -- comes amid surging demand as food production rises in response to global population growth.

© 2010 AFP

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