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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ministry: Kurils Too Rich to Give Up

A group of Pacific islands that Russia and Japan have been fighting over for 60 years is too rich in oil and other natural resources to give up, the Natural Resources Ministry said Tuesday.

The islands, which Russia calls the Southern Kurils and the Japanese call the Northern Territories, hold large reserves of crude oil, natural gas, gold, iron, titanium and other metals, the ministry said in a statement.

"The Southern Kurils have a significant, practically non-used potential in mineral resources," the ministry said. "The ministry developed a program that considers the need for further research and recovering the mineral resources base of the Southern Kurils."

Tokyo has been pressing Moscow to return the islands -- which lie between the northeastern coast of Japan's Hokkaido Island and the Russian Kurils chain -- since they were occupied by Soviet forces at the end of World War II. The dispute has kept the two countries from signing a peace treaty to officially end the war.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told his parliament Tuesday that Tokyo will reject any offer by Russia to return only two of four islands, an idea floated by Moscow in the past.

Russian seismic researchers estimate that the islands hold 364 million tons of oil equivalent, the ministry said in the statement. The geologists also discovered sulfur deposits, including one on Iturup Island, agates deposits on Shikotan Island, and sand and gravel on Kunashir Island.

About 15,000 people, mainly Russians and Ukrainians, live on the three islands. The Habomai cluster of islands is the fourth area in dispute.

The islands' gold reserves have a "very high potential," the ministry said, adding that geologists will study the issue more closely.

Russia has also discovered large reserves of rhenium on three of the islands, the ministry said. U.S. and Japanese demand for rhenium, which is used in oil chemistry, electric materials production, and in aviation and space industries, has almost tripled in recent years, according to the ministry. The price of rhenium rose fivefold last year to about $1,500 per kilogram.

Russian demand for rhenium is expected to reach 10 to 15 tons by 2015, up from 5 tons in 2005, the ministry said, and the reserves of rhenium on Iturup's Kudryavy volcano would provide 15 to 20 tons of the metal per year.

"The setup of new producing and refining capacities in the Far East ... fully corresponds to Russia's geopolitical interests," Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev said in the statement. The ministry plans to submit to the government a program for research and production of mineral resources in the region, the ministry said.

Koizumi plans to discuss the issue with President Vladimir Putin when the Russian leader visits Tokyo later this year.

(Reuters, MT)