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Thursday
Feb072013

Japan Scrambles Jets in Island Dispute with Russia

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(TOKYO) -- The Japanese government lodged a protest with Moscow on Thursday after two Russian fighter jets briefly violated Japanese air space above disputed islands off the northern coast of Hokkaido island, the defense ministry said.

Japanese F-2 fighter jets were scrambled following the breach by two SU-27 jets, according to the ministry.  The foreign ministry lodged a protest with the Russian embassy in Tokyo, but a Russian military spokesman denied any intrusion took place, saying the jets were conducting regular flights in “strict accordance with international regulations,” according to local media.

The dispute over four small islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, dates back six decades.  The former Soviet Union took control of the islands, located some 4,000 miles from Moscow, in the final days of World War II.  A 1956 treaty called for two of the islands to be returned to Japan, but Tokyo has demanded all four.

The ongoing spat has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty to this day.

Tensions flared up last July when then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited one of the islands, prompting protests from Tokyo.

The latest incident coincided with “Northern Territories Day” in Japan.  The Japanese government has annually used Feb. 7 as a day to remind citizens of an 1855 treaty, which Japan says supports its claims to the Pacific island chain.

At an annual rally marking the day, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to do his utmost to find a solution that was “mutually acceptable” to both countries.

Japan has been locked in several territorial disputes with its neighbors, including an increasingly tense standoff with China over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands.  The Sino-Japanese spat reached a tipping point last month after a Chinese warship locked a radar used to guide missiles on a Japanese ship.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio