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Japan protests Russia defence chief's Kurils visit


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

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara summoned Russian Ambassador Mikhail Bely to protest the trip made on Friday by Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to the disputed southern Kuril islands, which are claimed by the two countries.

The visit by Serdyukov has again upset Tokyo after President Dmitry Medvedev last year sparked a major diplomatic crisis with Japan when he became the first Russian leader 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.

Japan does not contest Russia's sovereignty over the northernmost islands but has repeatedly demanded the return of the four southernmost islands and it is the latter that Serdyukov was visiting 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 Friday.

"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.

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.

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