TOKYO – A Russian patrol boat opened fire on a Japanese vessel in disputed waters Wednesday, killing a fisherman and triggering a harsh protest from Tokyo. Moscow reportedly urged Japanese boats to stay out of its waters.
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, who remained unidentified, was killed as he rushed to recover fishing tools aboard the fishing boat.
The shooting marked the latest flare-up of a 60-year-old territorial dispute between Japan and Russia, and prompted a series of angry statements between the two countries.
Japan called the act "unacceptable," and demanded immediate compensation and release of the boat and surviving crew, but Russian officials said the captain could face charges for illegally crossing into Russian territory.
Russia's Deputy Ambassador Mikhail Galuzin was quoted by Kyodo News agency as telling Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso that the boat had violated Russian territory and demanding the breach not happen again. Ministry officials declined to confirm the report.
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.
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.
Each side Wednesday blamed the other for the killing.
Russia said the boat had defied orders to stop. Andrei Kostin, councilor at the Russian Embassy in Tokyo, was quoted by Interfax as saying "Russian border guards acted absolutely within their powers."
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.
Tokyo was visibly angered by the killing. Chikahito Harada, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official, summoned Galuzin to his office and issued his own set of demands.
"Our country strongly demands (Russia) prevents a recurrence of similar incidents," a ministry statement quoted Harada as saying. "We also note that we have a right to claim punishment of officials in charge of the incident and compensation for the damages."
Japan's Fishery Agency acknowledged that crab fishing in that area is illegal, though it said it was unclear whether the boat was illegally fishing at the time of the shooting. The Foreign Ministry insisted the boat was in Japanese waters.
A total of 30 fishing boats and 210 Japanese crew members were seized by Russia in the disputed northern waters between 1994 and 2005, while seven other fishermen were injured when the Russian coast guard fired at them during the same period, according to the Japan Coast Guard.
Details about Wednesday's shooting were sketchy.
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 as he scrambled to bring in fishing equipment.
"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.
The crew was taken to nearby Kunashiri island, which is also in the southern Kuril chain, for further investigation. The remaining three crew members were believed to be not injured.
Japan also dispatched two coast guard vessels to the shooting scene, Coast Guard officials said.
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.
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.