Russian boat fires on Japanese fishing vessel

TOKYO — A Russian patrol boat opened fire on a Japanese vessel in disputed waters Wednesday, killing a fisherman and prompting a strong protest from Tokyo. Moscow urged Japanese boats to stay out of its waters, the Japanese government said.

The crab fisherman was shot and killed near Kaigara island, one of several islands off the northeast tip of Hokkaido that are administered by Russia and claimed by Japan. Russia's regional border patrol said he suffered a "fatal shot in the head."

Russian officials said the man, identified by Japanese media as Mitsuhiro Morita, 35, was killed by a warning shot as he rushed to recover fishing equipment aboard the fishing boat, which was "maneuvering dangerously" and tried to ram a Russian dinghy.

"They were not aiming (to kill)," Russian Deputy Ambassador Mikhail Galuzin said.

The shooting was the latest flare-up of a 60-year-old territorial dispute between Japan and Russia, and prompted a series of angry recriminations.

Japan insisted the boat was in Japanese waters, called the act "unacceptable," and demanded immediate compensation and release of the boat and surviving crew. The Japanese Coast Guard said it had dispatched two vessels to the shooting scene.

"There has been a loss of life, and the situation is grave. Japan demands an immediate apology," Foreign Minister Taro Aso told reporters after a tense meeting with Galuzin in Tokyo. "It's unacceptable this took place within Japanese waters."

Russian officials expressed "regret" over the death but defended the patrol boat's actions, saying the Japanese ship had violated Russian waters and authorities acted within their powers.

The responsibility for the shootings lay "with the direct culprits and … with Japanese authorities that close their eyes to fishermen's poaching in Russian territorial waters," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Galuzin told Aso that Russia demanded the breach not happen again, the Japanese government said.

Russian officials said they had discovered freshly caught crabs on the fishing boat: Japan's Fishery Agency acknowledged that crab fishing in that area is illegal at this time of year under an agreement between the two nations.

Morita's mother, Shoko, said from her home in Hokkaido she couldn't believe her son was dead.

"I don't understand why they had to open fire," Shoko said through tears on national broadcaster NHK. "He was a good son. He didn't do anything wrong."

The four islands — called the Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan — were seized by the Soviet army near World War II's end. Tokyo has demanded their return, and the dispute has blocked a treaty formally ending wartime hostilities.

The islands are surrounded by rich fishing waters and are believed to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves, as well as gold and silver deposits.

While Russian authorities have seized dozens of Japanese boats and injured several fishermen over the years, this was the first shooting death of a Japanese in the region since October 1956, Coast Guard officials said.

A total of 30 fishing boats and 210 Japanese crew members were seized by Russia in the disputed northern waters between 1994 and 2005. Seven fishermen were injured when the Russian coast guard fired at them during the same period, according to the Japanese Coast Guard.

Mikhail Shevchenko, deputy head of the Russian Border Guards Service division on Sakhalin island in the Russian Far East, said the fisherman was felled by warning shots when "the vessel didn't react to our command to stop, was maneuvering dangerously and several times tried to ram our rubber boat," Shevchenko said on Russia's NTV television channel.

Galuzin told reporters after the meeting with Aso that the fishing vessel appeared to have charged at the Russian boat, prompting the warning shots.

The three surviving crew members, who were not injured, were taken to a nearby island and may face criminal charges, according to NHK.

Tatyana Kutuzova, an aide to the regional prosecutor, was quoted by Interfax and RIA-Novosti as saying the captain of the vessel was under investigation for illegally crossing the Russian border, and may face criminal charges.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered to revive a 1956 Soviet-Japanese declaration under which Moscow had agreed to return two of the islands, but Tokyo has rejected the proposal as insufficient and talks on the issue are deadlocked.