Thursday, August 17, 2006
A Russian border patrol boat shot and killed a Japanese fisherman while firing warning shots on his vessel Wednesday morning near disputed Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, the Japan Coast Guard said. The crab boat No. 31 Kisshin Maru was fishing near Kaigara Island, one of several islets in the Habomai group claimed by both Japan and Russia, Coast Guard official Kazuhiro Nakaya said. The deceased, who was hit in the head, was identified as Mitsuhiro Morita, 35. The other three crew members -- skipper Noboru Sakashita, 59, Akiyoshi Kawamura, 29, and Haruki Kamiya, 25 -- are safe but were taken along with their vessel into Russian custody, the JCG said. All four are from Nemuro. Mikhail Shevchenko, deputy head of the Border Guards Service division on Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, said the crab boat defied orders to stop and the fisherman was felled by warning shots as he scrambled to bring in his fishing gear."The vessel didn't react to our command to stop, was maneuvering dangerously and several times tried to ram our rubber boat," Shevchenko said on Russia's NTV television channel. The 4.9-ton Kisshin Maru, which belongs to a fishery cooperative in Nemuro, was seized and is being towed by Russia to Kunashiri, another disputed Russian-held island. According to the coast guard, Morita is the first Japanese fisherman to be killed by the Russian border patrol since October 1956. Andrei Kostin, a councilor at the Russian Embassy in Tokyo, was quoted by Interfax as saying the incident "erupted over a violation of Russian territorial waters by Japanese fishermen. Russian border guards acted absolutely within their powers." Russian authorities said they would hand over Morita's body by Friday, the Japanese Consulate General in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk said. According to Russia's Interfax news agency, Japan would get Morita's body once an autopsy had been done and skipper Sakashita would be detained in Kunashiri until the probe was finished. The report said the two other crew members might also be detained as long as Sakashita. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Taro Aso summoned Russia's acting ambassador, Mikhail Galuzin, to lodge a formal protest. "I sought an apology (from the Russian government) and punishment of those responsible. I also called for the immediate handover of the victim's body and immediate release of the detained crew members and boat," Aso told reporters after his 15-minute meeting with Galuzin. Aso told Galuzin that Japan reserves the right to seek damages, according to Foreign Ministry officials. They quoted Galuzin as replying he would swiftly relay Aso's message to Moscow. Galuzin said he regretted the incident and offered his condolences to the dead man's family, but defended the seizure of the ship because it ignored warning shots and did not immediately comply with the unit's repeated orders to stop, according to the officials. "From what I have heard from the border patrol authorities, the border patrol tried to seize the boat because the boat tried to escape, and hit the vessel carrying the border patrol," the officials quoted him as saying. They said Aso responded by saying that Japan found Russia's actions "unacceptable" and that as the incident involved the loss of life, it "cannot be justified." Hokkaido officials said crab fishing is banned at the scene of the incident and local fishing co-ops were warned not to engage in unauthorized fishing in the area, in response to a Russian request earlier this month for action to stop poaching. Russia seized 30 fishing boats and 210 Japanese crew members in the disputed waters between 1994 and 2005, and seven fishermen were wounded by Russian gunfire during the period, the Japan Coast Guard said. The government's crisis control center set up an information-gathering office Wednesday, and coast guard vessels were sent to the scene to investigate. The family of Sakashita said he called them shortly before 6 a.m. and said his boat had been seized by Russia. He was quoted as saying he did not know if the rest of the crew was safe. The Habomai islets, together with the Russian-held islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, and Shikotan, are claimed by both Russia and Tokyo. Fishermen pay the Russian government for permission to harvest sea tangle, or "kombu," around Kaigara. The islands are surrounded by rich fishing waters and are believed to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves, as well as gold and silver deposits.