Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said that the Pacific Kurile Islands chain at the center of a territorial dispute with Japan is a "very important" part of Russia.
Medvedev also said he plans to visit the islands soon -- an announcement criticized by Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, who warned that such a visit would "severely hurt ties" between Japan and Russia.
The Kurile archipelago, which lies north of Japan's Hokkaido island, have been controlled by Russia since they were seized by Soviet troops in 1945.
Japan has repeatedly demanded the return of the four southernmost islands -- known in Russian as Iturup, Shikotan, Habomai, and Kunashir -- and which are collectively known in Japan as the Northern Territories.
The ongoing dispute has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II.
compiled from agency reports