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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Japan Presses Russia to Free Fishermen

TOKYO -- A Japanese ruling party leader headed to Moscow on Thursday to demand the release of three Japanese fishermen seized by the Russian coast guard last week, a Japanese party official said.

The three were apprehended after a Russian patrol boat opened fire on their fishing boat, killing one crew member. Moscow accuses the boat of trespassing in Russian waters near a group of islands held by Moscow but claimed by Tokyo.

The trip by Tsutomu Takebe, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, is the latest move by Japan to pressure Russia on the case. Japan last week formally protested the shooting.

"From a humanitarian standpoint, we are asking [Russia] to release the detained men as early as possible," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters Thursday evening. "We must consult with the Russian side to prevent a similar incident from happening."

Takebe left Tokyo early Thursday for Moscow, and is to return to Japan next Tuesday, LDP official Yuji Obinata said.

Takebe had already been slated to make the visit and meet with members of United Russia, but has expanded his agenda to meet Russian government officials over the shooting, Obinata said.

Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Kazutoshi Kaneda will also visit Moscow next week to meet with Russian officials to demand the fishermen's release, officials said.

"We will continue to strongly seek the Russian side's move to free them as early as possible," Kaneda told reporters Thursday.

Last Saturday, Russia handed over the body of Mitsuhiro Morita, who was killed by the Russian patrol boat on Aug. 16 when it fired on the fishing vessel. He was 35.

The captain of the fishing boat, Noboru Sakashita, 59, and the two other surviving crew members remain in Russian custody.

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

The Soviet army seized the islands near the end of World War II.

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

Japan's Foreign Ministry has protested the Russian shooting as too extreme a response and demanded that those responsible be punished.

Russian officials expressed "regret" over the death but defended the patrol boat's actions, saying the Japanese ship had violated Russian waters and authorities acted within their powers.

The islands are surrounded by rich fishing waters and are believed to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves, as well as gold and silver deposits.

Russian authorities have seized dozens of Japanese boats and injured several fishermen over the years, but this was the first fatal shooting of a Japanese in the region since October 1956, Japanese coast guard officials said.