Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Tokyo Sunday afternoon, just hours after rejecting Japan’s demand that a group of disputed islands off the northeastern island of Hokkaido be returned.

The islands are to be the main topic of his talks with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

“We are not talking about turning over the (Southern) Kuril Islands,” Putin told reporters Sunday morning in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the capital of Sakhalin, where he stopped over before flying to Tokyo.

“Some people say the Russian government is trying to turn over the (Southern) Kuril Islands, but we are only negotiating over the issue. It is no more than that,” he said. Putin was visiting the city to attend a ceremony commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Japan in the war.

Upon his arrival at the Haneda airport in Tokyo, Putin stressed he is ready to boost overall relations with Japan through the talks with Mori.

“This visit itself proves that I am ready to advance overall relations between Japan and Russia based on past agreements, particularly the 1998 (Moscow) declaration,” Putin told reporters. “I hope (the visit) will contribute to the further strengthening of bilateral ties.”

Mori, who met Putin at the airport, also told reporters, “I hope to hold discussions on many issues based on trust and in a frank manner and strengthen Japanese-Russian ties.”

The two leaders held a 10-minute meeting over tea at the State Guesthouse in Tokyo, where they agreed to do their best in their three rounds of talks over today and Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The meeting between Mori and Putin will be their third, following talks in April and July.

The summit is expected to focus on the decades-old territorial dispute that has prevented the two countries from signing a formal World War II peace treaty. It will effectively be the first full-fledged negotiations on the dispute in more than two years.

The two countries agreed in 1997 to conclude the peace pact by the end of 2000, but negotiations have stalled because of differences over ways to settle the problem of the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.

The islands are known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuril in Russia. Japan has called on Russia to return the islands, which were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II, but Moscow has refused.

The Moscow Declaration mentioned by Putin reaffirms the 1997 agreement.

In their talks, Mori is expected to reiterate a compromise plan that would allow Russia to maintain administration over the islands as long as Moscow agrees to draw a demarcation line between the northernmost of the disputed islands and Russia’s Urup Island, thus acknowledging Japan’s sovereignty over the disputed territory.

But analysts and diplomats predict that Putin is unlikely to make concessions during his visit. Moscow has so far suggested that the island dispute should be shelved for future negotiations.

Putin, accompanied by his wife, Lyudmila, will meet with the Emperor and Empress, as well as with business leaders and legislators, before leaving Tuesday for New York to attend the U.N. Millennium Summit.

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