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Japan protests Russian defence chief’s Kurils visit

Japan protested against a visit by the Russian defence minister on Friday to a disputed island chain, warning that the move threatened to sour already uneasy ties.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said of Anatoly Serdyukov’s trip to the southern Kuril islands: “It is extremely regrettable. We have firmly conveyed our resolve on the matter through the foreign ministry.”

Japan’s Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara summoned Russian Ambassador Mikhail Bely over the visit hours earlier to the islands, which are claimed by both countries.

It comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last year sparked a major diplomatic crisis with Japan when he became the first leader from Moscow to visit one of the disputed islands.

The Kurils, which lie north of Japan’s Hokkaido island, have been controlled by Moscow since they were seized by Soviet troops in 1945 but their status is a major problem in Moscow-Tokyo relations.

The row has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II.

“We want to continue negotiations (with Russia) patiently by adhering to our basic policy to settle the territorial issue between Japan and Russia and conclude a peace treaty,” Kan said.

Japan does not contest Russia’s sovereignty over the northernmost islands of the chain but has repeatedly demanded the return of the four southernmost islands, and it is the latter that Serdyukov visited Friday.

Tokyo “delivered a strict protest to Ambassador Bely”, said Maehara in light of what he called “the extremely regrettable situation”.

Maehara has been planning to visit Moscow this month and told a news conference: “It happened when I’m trying to develop Japan-Russia relations, including the resolution of the territorial issue.

“Such a visit is like pouring cold water on those efforts.”

Maehara, however, insisted that the visit should not affect economic cooperation between the two sides.

“I believe we have to further raise our economic cooperation. I’m thinking that we can build a win-win relationship,” he said.

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

Serdyukov left the Far Eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk for the “18th artillery division based on the Kuril islands of Iturup, Kunashir and Shikotan,” ITAR-TASS quoted the defence ministry as saying.

“During today’s visit, the minister will inspect issues of battle readiness, the supplying of the forces and also the social situation of the servicemen and their families,” it added.

A later statement from the Russian defence ministry said Serdyukov had heard a report from the commander of the 18th artillery division on Iturup as well as visiting the mess hall and bakery.

On Kunashir, he inspected heating and medical facilities as well as meeting with the families of servicemen. He then flew over the smaller Shikotan on a helicopter.

Russian and Japanese officials have repeatedly expressed frustration that the dispute has prevented relations reaching their full potential but summit meetings over the last several years have failed to make any progress in the dispute.