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Former Japanese Residents To Fly To Disputed Russian-Held Islands

In a 1989 photo, Japanese visitors pray at a cemetery in Kunashir, part of the disputed island chain.

Former Japanese residents are traveling to two Russian-held islands in the Pacific Ocean to pay their respects at family graves, Japanese officials say.

The visit -- set to begin on June 18 -- will mark the first time Japanese citizens will be allowed to travel by air to the disputed island chain, which Tokyo calls the Northern Territories and Moscow calls the Southern Kuriles.

Previous Japanese visitors were forced to travel by ship under a complicated procedure.

About 70 visitors will travel aboard a charter flight by Russian airline Aurora from the Japanese city of Nakashibetsu to the islands of Iturup and Kunashir, officials said.

Although Russian-held, Japan still claims the islands, which the Soviet Union seized in the closing days of World War II.

Lingering tensions over the islands have prevented Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty to formally end the war.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on June 17 said the visit and continued cooperation with Russia regarding the islands could mark a “big step” toward the eventual signing of a peace treaty.

"The joint economic activities in the Northern Territories and the fact we are going to jointly consider their future is no doubt a big step toward signing a peace treaty by solving the issue of sovereignty [over the islands]," Kishida told Japanese NHK TV.

On March 20, Moscow and Tokyo pledged closer economic and security cooperation related to the island chain.

A month later, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had agreed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to start flights for former Japanese residents to "visit the graves of ancestors" on the islands.

He said the move was made to help “create an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding” as the two sides sought a more-permanent solution to the dispute.

With reporting by TASS and Jiji Press
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