Russia releases captured Japanese fishermen

TOKYO Russia on Wednesday released two Japanese fishermen held since their boat was seized for allegedly fishing in Russian waters in a confrontation in which a crewman was killed, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.

The Russians handed over the fishermen Akiyoshi Kawamura and Haruki Kamiya Wednesday afternoon, said Shunji Yamada, an official in the Foreign Ministry's Russia bureau.

Russian and Japanese officials met aboard a Japanese fisheries patrol boat near Kunashiri Island for the handover.

The captain, Noboru Sakashita, 59, who has reportedly taken the blame for his boat's alleged violation of Russian territory, will remain in Russian custody for now, Yamada said.

The Foreign Ministry will press Russia for his release, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe told reporters.

Each country claims the fishing boat was in its own waters on Aug. 16 when Russian authorities opened fire on the boat, killing a crab fisherman.

The shooting occurred near the southernmost of four islands claimed both by both countries off Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido.

The disputed islands are called the southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan.

The Soviet army seized the islands near the end of World War II. The dispute has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending World War II hostilities.

The surrounding waters are rich in fish and believed to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves, as well as gold and silver deposits.

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