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Japan, Russia affirm close communication over territorial talks

ROME — The foreign ministers of Japan and Russia agreed Friday to cooperate closely toward progress in talks to settle a territorial row that has blocked a peace treaty to formally end World War II.


After their meeting in Rome, Japan’s Taro Kono told reporters about his “in-depth” discussions with Sergey Lavrov of Russia on the path to concluding a bilateral peace treaty.


But the Japanese minister declined to comment on the substance of the talks, including whether any progress has been made on the territorial dispute.


The two ministers met as the decades-old row appears to be taking a new turn, with the two countries’ leaders agreeing last week to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 joint declaration that envisions the return of two of the four disputed islands off Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit to be held in Argentina next week. Abe also hopes to visit Russia in late January for further talks with Putin.


The territorial dispute involves what Japan calls the Northern Territories, four islands that the former Soviet Union seized following Japan’s surrender in 1945. They are known as the Southern Kurils in Russia.


The Japanese government has long insisted that issues concerning the “attribution of the four islands” must be settled before a peace treaty is signed. But Abe has recently hinted that he is focusing first on the return of the Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, which are referred to in the 1956 declaration.


Kono is visiting Rome to attend an annual international gathering called Mediterranean Dialogues, which brings together government officials and experts on foreign and defense issues.

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