Sun, Aug 20, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Russia returns body of Japan fisherman, crew still captives

AP , TOKYO

Russia yesterday handed over the body of a Japanese fisherman killed by a Russian patrol boat that opened fire in disputed waters this past week, spurring a diplomatic feud.

The shooting of the crab fisherman on Wednesday was the latest flare-up in a 60-year dispute over several islands claimed by both countries.

The incident has strained relations between the Pacific powers. Russia seized the fisherman's boat, accused the crew of illegal fishing and took the three surviving crewmen to Russia for further questioning.

Japan's Vice Foreign Minister Akiko Yamanaka yesterday morning received the body of Mitsuhiro Morita, 35, at Kunashiri Island, where the body had been kept, Japan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The body was transferred to a Japanese Coast Guard vessel, which arrived in the northern Japanese port of Nemuro later yesterday, the ministry said.

The ministry also said Japanese officials spoke for about 15 minutes yesterday with 59-year-old Noboru Sakashita, captain of the fishing boat Kisshin Maru No. 31, and with the two other surviving crew members.

The crewmen are in Russian custody, a Foreign Ministry Russian Division official said on condition of anonymity, citing ministry policy.

The fishing boat also remained in Russian hands, he said.

On Friday, Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki was in Moscow to seek the release of the three fishermen that had been detained, amid protests that Russia had overreacted to the alleged poaching.

The incident occurred in the ocean off northeastern Japan near four disputed islands, called the southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan.

The Soviet army seized the islands near the end of World War II. Kunashiri Island, one of the islands in the chain, is administered by Russia but claimed by Japan.

Each country claims the fishing boat seized on Wednesday was in its own territorial waters at the time of the shooting.

The island dispute has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending World War II hostilities. The surrounding waters are rich in fish and believed to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves, as well as gold and silver deposits.

Over the years, Russian authorities have seized dozens of Japanese boats and injured several fishermen, but this was the first shooting death of a Japanese in the region since October 1956, Coast Guard officials said.

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