Concerned on missiles, Russia's foreign minister in Japan

( AFP ) - Russia's foreign minister was in Japan Tuesday to voice concern about a missile shield Tokyo is building with Washington, which Moscow views as another affront by the United States.

Japan, a close US ally, has never signed a peace treaty with Russia to formally end World War II due to a dispute over four islands off Japan's northern coast which Soviet troops seized in 1945.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Tokyo for a day of talks with his Japanese counterpart Masahiko Komura and the government's number two Nobutaka Machimura, a foreign ministry official said.

While the two nations are also expected to discuss the island dispute, Lavrov said he would press Tokyo on its missile system.

In an interview with Japan's Kyodo News ahead of his trip, Lavrov said Russia was "opposed to the construction of a missile defence system aimed at securing military superiority."

The United States and Japan began working on the missile shield project in 1998 after North Korea shot a ballistic missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean.

"A closed format for military and political alliances... will not be able to increase mutual trust in the region," Lavrov told Kyodo News.

"It will bring about results that are opposite to the expectations" of the United States, Japan, and Russia, he added.

Relations have turned increasingly acrimonious between a newly assertive Kremlin and a conservative-led White House.

Russia is also firmly opposed to US plans to base 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic to guard against possible missile attacks from "rogue" countries such as Iran and North Korea.

Moscow contends that the system in Eastern Europe is also aimed against Russia and warned that it would retaliate if it perceived the system as a threat.

Japan's relations with Russia have long been overshadowed by the dispute over the four southern Kuril islands, which Tokyo calls the Northern Territories and claims in full.

In 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japan's then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi signed an "action plan" to boost economic ties while at the same time working on the territorial dispute.

Komura, the Japanese foreign minister, said ahead of his meeting with his counterpart that resolving the island row was a "prerequisite to conclude a peace treaty, which is the main pillar of the Japan-Russia Action Plan."

"Without progress on the main pillar, the action plan cannot be implemented smoothly. So of course, first and foremost, we would like to tackle this issue," Komura told reporters.

Putin spoke by telephone last week with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and agreed to work to resolve the island dispute.

"We do not have the intention of preserving this problem. We truly want to end it," Russian foreign ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said of the talks.

Fukuda, who was elected premier last month, told Putin they should work together to "bring about progress toward the solution of the territorial issue," according to a separate Japanese statement.

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