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Japan and Russia agree to territory talks

TOKYO, June 29 (UPI) -- Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reiterated a desire to solve the 65-year territorial dispute over the Russian-occupied Kuril Islands group.

Kan and Medvedev made their statements in Canada where they briefly met on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit near Toronto.

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The G8 summits bring together leaders from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Russia occupied four Japanese islands, Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, in the last day of World War II in 1945. The Japanese population was expelled and Russians moved onto the islands, although the population of the islands is fewer than 20,000 people.

Kunashiri, around 80 miles long and 20 miles wide, is the most southern island. It is plainly visible from the most northerly Japanese Island, Hokkaido. Its four volcanoes are still active.

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Japan and Russia haven't officially ended their war-time hostilities as no peace treaty has been signed. Japan insists that the islands must be returned before a treaty can be signed.

Kan told Medvedev that settling the dispute has been an ardent wish of the Japanese people for the past 65 years, a Japanese official said. Kan told the Russian president that he wanted to seek a final settlement on this issue at a bilateral summit level, which was the highest priority issue of his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama.

Medvedev said the territorial row is the most difficult problem the two countries share but isn't unsolvable, the Japanese official said. The Russian leader said Tokyo and Moscow should explore a solution both sides can accept.

The desire by both sides to reach an agreement crops up from time to time, especially during international meetings where informal discussions take place that pin neither side down to details.

Earlier this month, Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also reaffirmed their commitment to reach an agreement.

It was a year ago at another 3-day G8 summit, in the Italian city of L'Aquila, that Medvedev made a similar statement concerning the dispute. At the time he said Russia would negotiate on the basis of the 1956 Japanese-Soviet joint declaration, signed in Moscow.

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It noted that Shikotan island and the Habomai islets would be returned to Japan after

a peace treaty is concluded between.

Medvedev also suggested that the 1993 Tokyo Declaration on Japan-Russia Relations would help in solving the dispute. It noted, Japan and Russia agreed to settle the issue of ownership of the four islands based on the principles of law and justice and conclude a bilateral peace treaty at an early date.

But the dispute, in reality, doesn't stop increased cooperation between the two Asian powers, especially on the economic front.

During the recent G8 summit Kan and Medvedev agreed to expand cooperation in energy and other areas.

In particular, Russia desires more Japanese high-technology investment to help modernize the country's infrastructure. This includes a joint development of liquefied natural gas deposits on Sakhalin island lying off Russia's north Pacific coast and the largest island in Russia.

Sakhalin is 590 miles long, 106 miles wide and home to around 600,000 people.

It is also another island that has been contested over the centuries by Japan and Russia. The Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905 split Sakhalin into a southern Japanese zone and a northern Russian area.

At the same time as the Russian occupation of the Kuril Island group in 1945, Russia also occupied the Japanese half of Sakhalin.

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Japan renounced its claim to Sakhalin in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco but the Kuril Islands remain very much on the Japanese political agenda.

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