Detained fishermen return to Japan from Russia

TOKYO (AFP) - All 14 crew from a fishing boat seized by Russia last month have returned to a port in northern Japan, a government spokesman said Friday (June 11), again insisting that the ship was operating legally.

The Eiho Maru No. 172 was seized in late May by Russia between Japan's northern island of Hokkaido and the Russian Far East.

Moscow has said the boat was operating in Russia's economic waters, but Japanese government spokesman Katsunobu Kato last week denied that and demanded the fishermen be freed.

"All crew members with their boat returned to Wakkanai port safely" early Friday morning, Mr Kato told reporters.

"The fishing boat was operating inside Japan's exclusive economic zone," he added.

He repeated that Tokyo had lodged a diplomatic protest to Russia over the seizure of the boat and crew.

Mr Kato also said authorities would investigate reports that the crew paid fines of six million Russian roubles (S$110,200) to return to Japan.

Japan and Russia are locked in a sovereignty dispute over four islands controlled by Moscow, which refers to them as the southern Kurils.

Tokyo claims the islands, which it calls the Northern Territories, and the dispute has prevented the two countries from signing a formal peace treaty since World War II.

The incident came after a Japanese fishing boat collided with a Russian ship off Hokkaido, killing three crew members.