Russia defiant as Japan recalls envoy in Kuril islands spat

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Russia announced that President Dmitry Medvedev planned more trips to a disputed chain of Pacific islands Tuesday, adding more fuel to a diplomatic row after Japan said it would recall its envoy to Moscow.

Only a day after Medvedev made the first visit by a Russian leader to the remote Kuril islands, his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated the president would not be deterred by the backlash from a furious Tokyo.

"He (Medvedev) will visit the other islands that are part of that group of islands," Lavrov told reporters in Norway as Tokyo simmered with rage over a visit on Monday which it has branded "very regrettable".

Lavrov's message of defiance came after his counterpart Seiji Maehara said he had summoned home Japan's ambassador to the Russian capital.

"I decided to recall ambassador to Russia (Masaharu) Kono temporarily," Maehara told reporters, adding it was undecided how long Kono's trip home would last. Kono was due to arrive back in Tokyo Wednesday, Jiji press said.

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 feud is another headache for Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose government has been embroiled in Japan's worst diplomatic spat with China for years over disputed islets in the East China Sea.

Medvedev infuriated Japan on Monday with his trip to one of the four islands at the heart of the dispute that has prevented the signing of a post-war peace treaty between the two nations.

In Moscow, the newspaper Kommersant reported that Russian fighter jets were deployed to escort Medvedev's plane after Japanese jets had been detected taking off shortly before his arrival on the Russian island of Sakhalin, from where he travelled to the Kuril island of Kunashir.

The Kremlin's press service refused to comment about the report.

Japan summoned Russia's ambassador to Tokyo after Medvedev flew in to Kunashir, known as Kunashiri in Japan, for a brief four-hour trip during which he inspected several sites and chatted with local residents.

While Lavrov called Japan's reaction to Medvedev's visit "unacceptable", Russia said it would not immediately recall its ambassador to Tokyo.

Japan on Tuesday said Kan was still likely to meet Medvedev when the Russian leader visits for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit on November 13-14.

Kan's centre-left government came under fire at home over its handling of Medvedev's visit and the long-running dispute, which comes at a time when Tokyo has also been embroiled in a territorial dispute with China.

"It's undeniable that Russia exploited a lack of philosophy in Japanese diplomacy as the Japanese government gave a shameless performance over the collision incident with a Chinese fishing boat," said the Nikkei business daily.

The bitter feud with Beijing stems from the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain whose vessel collided with Japanese patrol boats in waters near a disputed island chain in the East China Sea in September.

The fallout from that dispute has seen Kan's approval ratings plummet, with the public feeling that Tokyo capitulated to Chinese demands after prosecutors released the boat captain.

Analysts said Medvedev's visit was a clear signal to Tokyo that Moscow is not willing to give up the islands, which sit on deposits of gold and silver and have abundant marine life.

"Russia is testing the Kan administration's capability to handle security issues," said Hiroshi Kimura, professor of Russian politics at Takushoku University.

"Medvedev's visit is a message that Russia may not return all the four islands, the hardest stance ever taken by a leader of Russia or former Soviet Union," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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