Russian, Japanese foreign ministers discuss disputed islands

The top diplomats of Russia and Japan held talks Monday about disputed islands in the Pacific as Moscow sought to temper Japanese expectations of an imminent deal.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov opened the negotiations with Japanese counterpart Taro Kono by warning Tokyo against engaging in “unilateral rhetoric” regarding the territorial dispute – a stern statement signaling tough talks when the Japanese leader visits Moscow later this month.

The Soviet Union took the four southernmost Kuril Islands during the final days of World War II. Japan asserts territorial rights to the islands, which it calls the Northern Territories, and the dispute has kept both countries from signing a peace treaty.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed in November to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 Soviet proposal to return two of the islands to Japan.

Abe, who is set to visit Moscow later this month, has recently voiced hope that this year will mark a breakthrough in talks and spoke about an imminent change of the islands’ status – remarks that drew an angry response from Moscow.

The Russian Foreign Ministry last week summoned the Japanese ambassador to protest recent statements from Tokyo, saying they represented an apparent attempt to “artificially incite the atmosphere regarding the peace treaty problem and try to enforce its own scenario of settling the issue.”

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