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Former Japanese residents of four Russian-held islands near Hokkaido bid farewell Sunday to their hosts at Etorofu Island.

NEMURO, Hokkaido (Kyodo) Two groups of Japanese — comprising 107 people in all — returned to Nemuro port in eastern Hokkaido on Monday from separate visa-free trips to Russian-held islands that are claimed by Japan.

The first group of 46, including 36 former islanders and their children, landed on Yuri Island of the Habomai islet group on Sunday morning and visited an area where former residents lived before World War II, organizers said.

It was the first trip to Yuri under a visa-free program that began in June 1999, and the last this year.

Under the scheme, former residents, their spouses and their children can visit any of the four disputed islands northeast of Hokkaido without a visa, although identity cards issued by the Foreign Ministry are required.

The tour group’s leader, Hirokazu Suzuki, 68, said that despite the short duration of the trip, it was meaningful in that they had been able to walk all over the island.

Suzuki’s second-in-command, Masatoshi Kikuchi, 74, appeared discontented, however, at having been kept waiting for hours due to an apparent blunder by Russian authorities over immigration procedures.

Meanwhile, the second group, of 61 Japanese, arrived at Nemuro port the same day after visiting Etorofu Island for three days, the ninth trip of its kind this year.

The group, comprised of former islanders and activists from a movement campaigning for the return of the disputed islands to Japan, arrived at Etorofu on Saturday and toured Japanese cemeteries and a fishery, according to the organizers.

They made their trip under a program, started in 1992 between Tokyo and Moscow, that also allows government officials and journalists to visit the islands visa-free.

Participants in the scheme must go through entry procedures on Kunashiri Island before traveling on to their destinations.

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