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Japan Protests To Russia After Boats Fired At

TOKYO (Reuters) -- Japan lodged a protest with Russia today after two Japanese fishing vessels were shot at by the Russian Coast Guard near four disputed islands.

The two countries have a decades-old dispute over the chain of Pacific islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurile islands in Russia, which has prevented them from formally ending World War II hostilities.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry said in a statement Russian forces fired flares at two Japanese fishing vessels on January 29. When the boats returned to port in Hokkaido, they were found to have what looked like bullet marks in their hulls, it said.

The boats were fishing in an area agreed on by the two countries, Yasuaki Tanizaki, the Foreign Ministry's European Affairs chief, said in his protest to the Russian Ambassador to Japan, Mikhail Bely.

Japan's Kyodo news agency said the two vessels appeared to have a 20 bullet marks on their hulls.

Russian media also reported the incident, saying the Coast Guard shot at the two Japanese vessels with flares from a helicopter because they were suspected of operating illegally in Russia's exclusive economic zone near the islands. No one was hurt in the attack, Itar-TASS newswire said.

Russian state newswire RIA Novosti said the two boats, identified as Taka Maru 58 and Kiyomi Maru 63, were shot at near Kunashir island after they refused to stop.

"The fishing boats were in the waters of the Russian Federation, about one and a half miles from the shoreline of Kunashir, which is a violation of the rules set out by the Russian and Japan governments on February 21 1998," RIA quoted Irina Shebeko, a spokeswoman for Russia's Coast Guard, as saying.

In 2006, a Japanese fisherman died after a Russian patrol boat fired on a fishing boat.