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UPDATED: 09:20, September 03, 2004
Koizumi vows to seek early return of Russian-held isles
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Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi vowed Thursday to seek an early return of Russian-held islands claimed by Japan off Hokkaido after viewing some of them from the sea, despite recent criticism from Russia overshadowing prospects for a breakthrough.

But Koizumi declined to fully accept a demand by former residents that their home islands be returned from Russia all at once. He also did not indicate by when Tokyo would aim to resolve the issue.

Koizumi, who flew to Hokkaido from an Air Self-Defense Force base in Saitama Prefecture, attended the meeting after a five-hour boat trip to the disputed islands east of Hokkaido.

Seven junior high school students, the grandchildren of former islanders who had invited Koizumi to visit in July, greeted the premier as he entered the center.

He told reporters after the meeting, ''I will not set a deadline or target date but try to make it as early as possible as President Putin has said he has no intentions to put it off.''

The dispute over the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan, and the Habomai islet group that the Soviet Union seized at the end of World War II have prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty to formally end hostilities.

Departing before 11 a.m. from Hanasaki port in Nemuro, Koizumi approached Kaigara Island, a reef in the Habomai islets group some 3.7 kilometers from Japan's easternmost Nosappu point, some 30 minutes later.

Despite hazy weather, Koizumi saw the reef through binoculars aboard the Japan Coast Guard's 1,200-ton patrol vessel Erimo, which then traveled close to the median line with Kunashiri Island.

He became the third Japanese premier to view the disputed islands following the late Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki in 1981 and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in 2001, who both viewed them from the air.

A Russian guard ship was observed from the Erimo, which was escorted by a guard ship and helicopters.

Source: Kyodo News

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