August 18, 2006

Japan urges Russia to free boat crew after shooting

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan has urged Russia to release the
three remaining crew members of a fishing boat seized after a
Russian patrol boat fired on their vessel and a Japanese
fisherman died, a foreign ministry official said on Friday.

The death of the fisherman in Wednesday's incident, which
took place east of Japan's northernmost main island of
Hokkaido, is thought to be the first fatality for 50 years in a
territorial dispute dating back to the end of World War Two.

A foreign ministry official left Hokkaido on a Japan Coast
Guard vessel on Friday to collect the body of 35-year-old
fisherman Mitsuhiro Morita from Kunashiri, one of a group of
four islands claimed by both countries and currently controlled
by Russia.

She was also expected to try to meet with the three
fishermen in detention.

A Russian prosecutor on the island of Sakhalin said that
only the Japanese vessel's captain will be criminally charged
over illegal fishing and violation of entering Russian waters,
Kyodo news agency said.

It was unclear when the other two crew members would be
permitted to return to Japan. Senior Vice Foreign Minister
Yasuhisa Shiozaki is in Moscow trying to resolve the issue.

"We are strongly urging the Russian side to release the
three crew members as well as return the body. This is very,
very important," said Noriyuki Shikata, assistant press
secretary at the Foreign Ministry.

Japan and Russia have been locked in a dispute over the
islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the
Southern Kuriles in Russia, for decades.

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

The four islands, as close as 15 km (9 miles) from
Hokkaido, were seized by the Soviet Union in the waning days of
World War Two, forcing about 17,000 Japanese residents to flee.

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

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 was in October 1956, by
a Soviet vessel, Japanese officials said.