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Russians visit Hokkaido to start joint project amid territorial row

This photo taken on Jan. 30, 2019 from a Kyodo News airplane shows Russian-held, Japanese-claimed islands off Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido. Seen in the center is Kunashiri. (Kyodo)

KUSHIRO, Japan (Kyodo) -- A group of Russian officials and residents visited Nemuro in Hokkaido, northern Japan, on Monday to learn about garbage processing in preparation for one of the joint economic projects that Tokyo and Moscow aim to start on disputed islands off the Japanese city.

During a five-day visit through Friday, residents from one of the four disputed islands Kunashiri as well as officials from Russia's Sakhalin that effectively administers the islands plan to inspect a waste recycling facility and an incineration plant.

The residents are using a visa-free program between the two countries, according to a Russian source.

Japan and Russia are seeking to resolve their long-standing territorial dispute that has prevented the two from signing a postwar peace treaty.

The two countries agreed in 2016 to start talks to realize joint economic activities on the disputed islands at the center of the spat in the hope of building mutual trust.

The inspection tour is part of bilateral efforts to work on waste reduction, one of the five areas under the joint initiative, which also includes aquaculture and tourism.

Japan has offered to provide waste compression equipment to Russia while the residents hope for construction of a waste incineration facility, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had sought to make a breakthrough in peace treaty negotiations when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka but little progress was made.

Instead, the two leaders agreed to promote joint economic activities on the disputed islands that also include Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group.

A pilot tour is being arranged for Japanese tourists to visit Kunashiri and Etorofu from Oct. 11 to 16.

Tokyo has maintained that the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, were illegally seized after its 1945 surrender in World War II. Moscow claims that it legitimately acquired them as a result of the war.

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