Russian president angers Japan with visit to disputed isles

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev arrived in the Kuril Islands on Monday on the first visit by a Russian leader to territory at the heart of a decades-long dispute with Japan.

The trip, which comes ahead of Medvedev's visit to Japan for this month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, was immediately condemned by Japanese Prime Minster Naoto Kan.

"As Japan has kept its position that the four Northern Islands belong to the Japanese territory, the president's visit there is very regrettable," Kan told parliament.

The Kremlin chief flew in to the island of Kunashir, where he is expected to visit a geothermal energy station, meet local residents and inspect several construction sites, an official 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.

In September, Medvedev called the islands "a very important region of our country" and said that "we will definitely go there in the nearest future," prompting a warning from Japan of worsening ties.

Japan's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara responded that such a visit would "severely hurt ties".

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that the visit should not affect relations.

"The president plans his domestic movements across our country independently," he said, adding that he did not see "any connection" to relations between Moscow and Tokyo.

The row has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities, impeding the development of ties to their full potential.

The dispute surrounds the southernmost four islands -- known in Russian as Iturup, Shikotan, Habomai and Kunashir and which are collectively known in Japan as the Northern Territories.

Japan has baulked at suggestions that Russia could hand over two of the four islands or that the nations could develop them jointly, insisting on the return of all four islands.

In 1956, the Soviet Union signed a declaration offering to give back the two smallest islands but talks never progressed. Under president Boris Yeltsin, Russia raised the plan again to a furious reaction from nationalists and Communists.

President Vladimir Putin from 2004 several times raised the theoretical possibility that Russia could hand over two of the four disputed Kuril Islands to Japan.

After Medvedev was elected in 2008, Japan hailed him for showing a "strong desire to solve this problem," but no breakthroughs have emerged.

In October 2009, Maehara, then Japan's land minister, reiterated that the islands had been seized in an "illegal occupation", provoking an angry response from Moscow.

Earlier that year, Japan's parliament passed a law calling the islands "an integral part" of the country and saying it would "make the utmost efforts to realise the early return of the islands".

The Russian foreign ministry responded by calling the law "unacceptable."

Top Russian officials including Lavrov have visited the islands.

In 2005 the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging Russia to return the islands, which it called the Northern territories, to Japan.

© 2010 AFP

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