Russia threatens travel restrictions for Japanese officials to disputed islands


MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that it will ban visa-free travel for Japanese officials to the disputed Kurile islands if Japan continues to make statements assuming ownership of the islands.

The two countries have been involved in a decades-old dispute over islands north of Hokkaido, known as Kurile in Russia and referred to as the Northern Territories in Japan.

"If for some reason Japanese politicians cannot refrain from making public statements on the subject of the islands after a visit to Russian territory, we reserve the right to limit their participation in such trips," the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said in a statement that the current visa-free regime for Japanese officials was a "humanitarian act" that allowed for visiting the graves of their ancestors.

It referred to a statement Japanese Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs Ichita Yamamoto made during a visit to the islands.

It cited him as saying that his view of "the need to return (northern Japanese) territories" was reinforced by the trip.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, while serving as president, escalated tensions with Japan in 2010 when he became the first Russian leader to visit the disputed islands and promised to boost investment in the region.

(Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Alison Williams)