• Kyodo

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Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori indicated Tuesday that Japan may accept a two-stage interim accord in which Russia gives back two of a group of disputed islands, with the eventual return of the remaining territories also assured, as a step toward realizing a peace treaty.

Speaking to reporters aboard a government plane headed for New York, Mori acknowledged for the first time that Japan and Russia may not be able to conclude the peace treaty by the end of the year, as hoped, because of Russia’s domestic difficulties in resolving the territorial row.

The dispute — involving the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islets — have prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty. The islands off Hokkaido were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II.

Mori arrived in New York on Tuesday to attend the three-day U.N. Millennium Summit that opened Wednesday, having left Tokyo after two days of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In Tokyo, the two leaders failed to break the impasse over the territorial row and issued a statement saying they would continue negotiations under a 1997 agreement that calls on both nations to strive to resolve the territorial dispute and conclude the treaty by the end of 2000. Mori hinted at the possible two-stage interim deal aboard the plane when asked about a 1956 declaration between Japan and the Soviet Union.

During the Tokyo talks, Putin confirmed for the first time that the 1956 agreement remains in force.

“Should there be a proposal for such a process of returning the two islands, we won’t be able to agree unless it’s clear what we are going to do with the remaining two islands,” Mori said.

“We don’t see it as an option at this stage. It’s completely a matter of what we are going to do with all four islands.”

His comments were taken to indicate that the two-island proposal would be worth considering if the fate of the remaining islands was also made clear.

The prime minister said, however, that he and Putin had decided not to go into details over the issue during their last round of talks.

Mori conceded “it could go past the end of the year” for Russia to overcome domestic problems it faces over returning the disputed islands.

Referring to a one-on-one session with Putin on Tuesday morning, he said Putin explained the difficulties he faces at home and made “surprisingly in-depth explanations of various scenarios that could occur” in Russia over the resolution of the territorial row.

Mori said he perceived that Putin has “strong commitments” to resolving the row and concluding the treaty during his tenure as president.

Mori also said that a visit to Russia by him in response to an invitation Putin extended during the talks “could be this year or next year.”

“The fact is that we will continue to try in the remaining four months. That includes our foreign ministers, directors general and at other various levels,” he said.

According to Japanese officials, Mori and Putin were unable to agree during the Tokyo talks, as they stuck to their respective and conflicting proposals submitted earlier.

The Japanese proposal, first made in April 1998, would allow Russia to retain temporary administration of the islands if it agreed to draw a demarcation line between Etorofu, the northernmost of the four islands, and Russia’s Urup Island.

Putin reiterated Moscow’s counterproposal — first made in November 1998 — calling for an interim “peace, friendship and cooperation treaty” and leaving resolution of the territorial issue to a separate pact, the officials said.

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