Prosecutors: Japan set to release Chinese captain held in boat collision

Friday, September 24, 2010

Japan to release Chinese boat captain

TOKYO — Japanese prosecutors say they will release the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel involved in a collision near disputed islands.

The incident has raised tensions with China, which demanded Tokyo release the captain.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BEIJING (AP) — China is investigating four Japanese suspected of illegally filming military targets and entering a military zone without authorization, state media reported amid a tense diplomatic spat between Beijing and Tokyo over a fishing boat collision near disputed islands.

The company that employs the four men said they were doing research about chemical weapons abandoned by the Japanese military during World War II in order to bid on a clean-up project.

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency cited state security authorities in the northern city of Shijiazhuang as saying they had “taken measures” against the four Japanese “after receiving a report about their illegal activities.” There was no elaboration.

The authorities accuse the Japanese of entering a military zone without authorization in Hebei province, the capital of which is Shijiazhuang.

The brief report late Thursday night did not say whether the four Japanese are in detention.

Fujita Corp., a Tokyo-based construction and urban redevelopment company, identified the four men as Yoshiro Sasaki, 44, Hiroshi Hashimoto, 39, Sadamu Takahashi, 57 and Junichi Iguchi, 59, and said they were employees.

At a press briefing, Fujita spokesman Tatsuro Tsuchiya said the company has not been able to contact the men since receiving a one-word text message from Takahashi on Tuesday morning that read “Help.”

“We hope that they will be released quickly,” Tsuchiya told reporters.

The company said in a faxed statement the men traveled to Hebei province on Sept. 20 to gather information about the area, and were working to prepare a bid for a project to dispose of chemical weapons abandoned in China by the Japanese military during World War II.

Fujita said the company was also unable to reach a Chinese employee, Ji Yinsheng, who had been working with the group.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry confirmed it had received word from the Chinese government Thursday night about the incident. It did not have further details, including whether the men had been arrested or merely questioned.

The news could further sour relations that have deteriorated badly since earlier this month when Japan arrested a Chinese captain whose fishing boat collided with Japanese coast guard vessels near a string of islands in the East China Sea. Called Diaoyu or Diaoyutai in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, the islands are controlled by Japan, but are also claimed by China. They are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are regularly occupied by nationalists from both sides.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told reporters Friday the government does not believe the four men’s situation is connected to the island dispute.

Japan extended the detention of the Chinese captain Sunday, and Beijing reacted quickly, suspending high-level contacts with Tokyo and ruling out a meeting between Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan during U.N. meetings in New York this week.

On Tuesday, Wen threatened “further action” against Japan if it did not release the Chinese captain immediately.

Meanwhile, the United States on Thursday urged the two powers to quickly resolve the dispute and a military official said Washington was committed to strongly supporting Japan, one of America’s closest allies in the Pacific.

At a Pentagon news conference, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said the U.S. was tracking the situation closely and hoped that diplomatic efforts would ease tensions soon.

“And obviously we’re very, very strongly in support of … our ally in that region, Japan,” Mullen told reporters.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates added “and we would fulfill our alliance responsibilities,” without offering more specifics.

But besides hoping that tensions ease between China and Japan, Mullen said “we haven’t seen anything that would, I guess, raise the alarm levels higher than that.”

The dispute faces a test on Sept. 29, the deadline by which Japanese prosecutors must decide whether to charge the Chinese captain. Fourteen crew members and the boat have been returned.

Associated Press writer Tomoko A. Hosaka in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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