Russian FM says Medvedev free to visit Kuril Islands

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Russia's president is free to decide which Russian regions to visit, the foreign minister said Saturday, amid reports Dmitry Medvedev will go to the disputed Kuril Islands next week.

"The president plans his domestic movements across our country independently," Sergei Lavrov told reporters on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian summit in the Vietnamese capital.

Japan, which claims some of the Russian-held islands, has warned that any visit there by Medvedev would seriously hurt ties, after the Russian leader said he planned to travel there in September and had only been prevented from doing so because of bad weather.

Russia reacted by expressing indignation at Japan's interference in the president's plan to travel within his own country.

Speculation is growing that Medvedev may visit the archipelago as soon as next week when he heads back from his two-day visit to Hanoi.

Japan's Kyodo news agency reported on Friday that authorities in the Russian Far East were preparing for Medvedev's visit to the islands off Hokkaido on Monday. Kremlin officials refused to confirm the report.

Earlier this month a Kremlin source said it would be "appropriate to time a visit to the Kuril Islands with the next visit to Japan".

Medvedev is expected to visit Japan for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit next month.

Lavrov said a possible visit should not damage relations with Tokyo.

"I don't see any connection (between a visit and bilateral relations)," he was quoted as saying by Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency.

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 at the end of World War II, but Tokyo still claims the southernmost four islands as Japanese territory.

A Kremlin official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters earlier this week that Russia does not have to ask Japan's permission or notify Tokyo if the president plans a visit to the Kuril Islands.

© 2010 AFP

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