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The government is leaning closer to accepting a two-stage accord over four disputed islands off Hokkaido in which Russia would hand over two of them with assurances that the remaining two will also eventually be returned, government sources said Sunday.

The government and the ruling coalition — the Liberal Democratic party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — are coming around to the interim proposal “in order to make any progress over the territorial issue,” the sources said.

The dispute — involving the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets — has prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty, meaning they are still technically in a state of war. The islands were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II.

In early September, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to break the impasse over the territorial row, but issued a statement saying they would continue negotiations under a 1997 agreement that calls on the two nations to strive to resolve the territorial dispute and conclude the treaty by the end of 2000.

According to Russian and Japanese diplomatic sources, before the Russo-Japanese summit, Tokyo pushed Moscow to confirm a 1956 declaration by Japan and the Soviet Union stipulating the return of the Habomai islets and Shikotan Island after the conclusion of a peace treaty.

The effort was rewarded by Putin’s confirmation, the first ever, that the 1956 agreement remains in force.

The confirmation “opened the possibility (for the Japanese government) to move ahead with the territorial negotiations,” according to a Foreign Ministry source.

After the Tokyo talks, Mori said Japan could accept the interim accord as a step toward realizing a peace treaty.

However, Mori said Japan could not accept such an accord “unless it’s clear about what we are going to do with the remaining two islands.”

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

The Foreign Ministry also thinks Japan should only accept an interim accord with fixed dates for the two islands’ return and assurance of the eventual return of the remaining islands, Foreign Ministry sources said.

The ministry is planning to sound out Russia on the issue at vice minister-level talks slated for Oct. 23 in Tokyo. They are expected to discuss where to set a new national boundary should the territorial dispute be resolved, the sources said.

3,000 rally for islands

KUSHIRO, Hokkaido (Kyodo) About 3,000 people from across Japan held a rally Sunday in Nemuro, eastern Hokkaido, pledging to continue campaigning for the return of a group of Russian-held islands.

The rally, conducted at Cape Nosappu on the tip of Nemuro Peninsula, was the largest ever held by groups working for the return of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan islands and the Habomai group of islets off Hokkaido, organizers said.

Participants included former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata, who visited Shikotan Island and the Habomai group of islets in late August.

The Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) was one of the 129 organizations who sent representatives to the event at the cape, from where Kunashiri Island and the Habomai islets can be seen.

The activists clapped when an 85-year-old man who used to live on Kunashiri Island pointed at it and said, “I was born and spent my childhood there. I want to return to that island before I die.”

The participants shouted in Russian in the direction of the islands, “Return the four islands (to Japan).”

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