August 16, 2006

Japan protests after Russians shoot at fishing boat

By Teruaki Ueno

TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese fisherman died after a Russian
patrol boat fired on a fishing boat on Wednesday, Japanese
officials said, prompting Tokyo to protest what appeared to be
the first fatality for 50 years in a territorial dispute.

Japan's Foreign Ministry said it had demanded the immediate
release of the crabbing craft and its three other crew members,
who were seized east of Japan's northern main island of

About a dozen right-wing protesters dressed in
pseudo-miitary uniforms turned up in trucks with loudspeakers
at Tokyo's Russian embassy, calling the shooting a murder and
demanding the return of four disputed islands to Japan.

There was no confirmation that the shooting had led to the
death of the fisherman, but a spokesman said Foreign Minister
Taro Aso would call Russia's acting ambassador to the ministry
later on Wednesday to reiterate Tokyo's protest.

Earlier, a government source said the Russian action
appeared to have been a case of excessive use of force.

Kyodo news service quoted Mikhail Galuzin, a diplomat at
the Russian embassy, as saying the border patrol had fired
after the boat defied an order to stop and had seized it in
Russian waters.

Russia's Interfax news agency said the border guards had
fired a warning shot into the air, and later found a Japanese
man dead on the boat with a bullet wound to the head,

Officials at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow were
not immediately available for comment.


Japan and Russia have been locked in a long-running dispute
over the four windswept North Pacific islands, known as the
Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuriles in

The simmering feud has prevented them from signing a peace
treaty more than 60 years after the end of World War Two.

The islands, as close as 15 km (9 miles) from Hokkaido,
were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the war in 1945,
forcing about 17,000 Japanese residents to flee.

Most people in the islands depend on fishing for their
livelihood and Japan, a major fish consumer, would gain rich
fishing grounds if the islands were returned. The islands are
also close to oil and gas production regions of Russia.

Russia has said it is willing to hand over two islands but
Japan insists that all four must be returned.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi raised hackles in
Moscow in 2004 when he inspected the islands from a Japan Coast
Guard vessel, and a meeting between Russian President Vladimir
Putin and Koizumi late last year achieved no major

Fishing disputes are common in the area, and Russian border
patrols often try to capture Japanese fishermen. But the last
time a Japanese fisherman was shot dead by a Soviet vessel was
nearly 50 years ago, in October 1956, Japanese officials said.

"Seizures of Japanese fishing boats by Russia in the waters
are not rare, but shooting is very rare," a Japan Coast Guard
official said.

(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg in Tokyo and Moscow