Japan to dismiss Moscow envoy over island dispute: reports

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Japan's envoy to Russia faces the sack after telling Tokyo that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would not visit a disputed island even after Moscow said the trip was imminent, reports said Thursday.

The Kuril Islands, just off the northern coast of Hokkaido, were seized by Soviet forces at the end of World War II, but the southernmost four are still claimed by Tokyo and the issue casts a cloud over Russian-Japanese relations.

Medvedev defied Japanese warnings and protests to visit the southernmost island, known as Kunashir in Russia or Kunashiri in Japan, on November 1, in the first ever journey by a Russian leader to the territory.

It was the latest in a series of embarrassments over foreign policy for Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government.

Even though Medvedev had said since late September that he would "soon" visit the island, ambassador Masaharu Kono reported to Tokyo that he did not believe it would go ahead, major Japanese media said.

Based on Kono's reports, the Japanese government repeatedly said during October that it had no information suggesting Medvedev had a concrete plan to travel to the island.

Media reports suggested Thursday that Kono had paid for his misjudgement with his job.

Japan is preparing to appoint Chikahito Harada, a veteran Russia handler now serving as the ambassador in the Czech Republic, to replace Kono, said major newspapers including the Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun.

No official decision has been announced but the personnel change could happen as early as January, according to major media, including the Asahi and national broadcaster NHK.

By naming a new ambassador to Russia, Japan hoped to improve its ability to collect information and to demonstrate Tokyo's strong will to resolve the territorial issue, the Asahi said.

But Moscow has become increasingly assertive over the Kurils.

Medvedev's trip was followed by a visit from Igor Shuvalov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's influential first deputy, who went to the same island, and another one called Iturup in Russia and Etorofu in Japan.

The Russian trips fuelled Japanese domestic criticism of Kan, who voiced regret and lodged protests to Moscow.

The prime minister's Russian difficulties are only the latest in a series of diplomatic blunders by Japan since he came to power in June, with the centre-left government having to mend soured ties with the United States and deal with a more assertive China.

© 2010 AFP

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