August 19, 2006

Russia returns Japanese fisherman’s body

TOKYO (Reuters) - The body of a Japanese fisherman killed
this week when a Russian patrol boat shot at a crabbing vessel
in disputed waters between the two countries, was returned to
Japan on Saturday, the foreign ministry said.

Moscow has expressed sadness over Wednesday's incident,
which was the first fatality in the decades-old territorial
dispute in 50 years, but blamed the death on the Japanese side
for intruding into Russian waters.

A Japanese foreign ministry official sailed to Kunashiri
island, one of a group claimed by both Moscow and Tokyo, on a
Japan coast guard vessel to collect the body of Mitsuhiro
Morita, 35, and returned with it to the northern Japanese
island of Hokkaido on Saturday.

The official also held a brief meeting with the three
surviving members of the fishing boat's crew, who have been
detained since the shooting. A senior Japanese official said on
Friday after talks in Moscow that Russia had promised to make
"maximum effort" to free the three on humanitarian grounds.

A Russian prosecutor on the island of Sakhalin has said
only the Japanese captain will be charged with illegally
fishing and entering Russian waters, Kyodo news agency said.

Japan and Russia both claim sovereignty over four sparsely
populated islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan
and the Southern Kuriles in Russia. The islands are currently
controlled by Russia.

The feud has prevented the two countries 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.