• Kyodo

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The three Japanese fishermen who were seized along with their boat by Russian authorities Wednesday morning off Hokkaido have admitted poaching in Russian waters, a source at the military prosecutors office in Vladivostok claimed later in the day.

Skipper Noboru Sakashita, 59, and two other crew members of the 4.9-ton Japanese crab boat Kisshin Maru No. 31 confessed during questioning that they had intruded into Russian territorial waters for purposes of poaching, the source said. Crewman Mitsuhiro Morita, 35, was gunned down by a Russian border patrol boat in what was reportedly supposed to have been a warning shot.

Sakashita will be charged with intruding into Russian waters and poaching, and the two crew members — Akiyoshi Kawamura, 29, and Haruki Kamiya, 25 — may be asked to testify in court, the source said.

At around 4 a.m. Wednesday, the Russian border patrol boat fired on the Kisshin Maru near Kaigara Island, part of the disputed, Russia-controlled Habomai islets off the Nemuro Peninsula on the eastern tip of Hokkaido, the Japan Coast Guard said.

In the incident, Morita sustained a fatal shot to the head and the other three were detained. Russian authorities impounded the Kisshin Maru, which belongs to a fishery cooperative in Nemuro and towed it to Furukamappu port on Kunashiri Island.

Japan dispatched officials Thursday to Moscow and Nemuro, Hokkaido, to step up efforts to get Russia to immediately hand over Morita’s body and to release the three other fishermen, Foreign Ministry officials said.

Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki headed Thursday night to Moscow to meet with Russian authorities Friday to press them to promptly hand over Morita’s corpse and immediately release the other crew members, one of the officials said.

The ministry said it also dispatched Vice Foreign Minister Akiko Yamanaka to Nemuro to help facilitate the handover of the body.

According to ministry sources, Yamanaka intends to travel to Russia-controlled Kunashiri to press the authorities to hand over the body and immediately release the remaining fishermen. The visit hinges on whether she can travel to Kunashiri from Nemuro aboard a JCG vessel.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Suzuki told reporters Thursday morning in Tokyo, “We’re negotiating with the Russian side to have a Japanese vessel go to Kunashiri Island to get the body, the vessel and its crew handed over.”

The three Japanese fishermen were lodged at the Dom Druzhby Hotel in Yuzhno-Kurilsk on the island, Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency said.

A source at the Japanese Consulate General in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk said the three may be detained for several months if they stand trial.

In past cases in which Japanese fishing boats were seized by Russian authorities, crew members except for skippers were released in a short time.

But the three crew members in the latest case may be detained for a longer period. “The Russian side is taking this incident as a vicious crime,” a source at the Japanese Embassy in Moscow said.

Russian authorities have said the border patrol fired a warning shot on the Kisshin Maru as the fishing boat allegedly failed to obey an order to stop after the border guards suspected it of fishing for crab illegally in waters claimed by Russia.

Wednesday’s incident underscores a long-standing territorial dispute over the Russian-held islands — Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan islands, and the Habomai islets.

Both Japan and Russia claim sovereignty over the islands, which were seized by Soviet forces near the end of World War II. The dispute has prevented Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty.

Exchanges still a go

Japan has no plan to cancel a visa-free exchange program with Russians living on the four disputed islands off Hokkaido, Foreign Ministry officials said Thursday, a day after a Japanese fisherman was fatally shot by a Russian patrol boat in the area.

The ministry, as well as Hokkaido, were responding to a request by Nemuro to suspend the program, which allows exchanges between the Russian residents and the Japanese residents who were evicted from the islands when the Soviet Union seized them near the end of World War II.

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