Japan freed 14 crew members of a Chinese fishing ship Monday nearly a week after their vessel collided with two Japanese patrol boats near disputed southern islets, but kept the captain in custody in a case that has angered China.
The Chinese boat collided with the patrol vessels Sept. 7 after ignoring warnings to leave waters near the disputed islands east of Taiwan -called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese - and refusing to stop for inspection. Japanese authorities arrested the captain for allegedly obstructing official duties.
China has demanded the release of the entire crew, including the captain, and said the confrontation could damage its relations with Japan, underlining the sensitivity of the territorial dispute in the East China Sea, one of several that trouble China's ties with its Asian neighbors.
After Japanese authorities questioned the 14 crew members on a nearby Japanese island, they departed Monday on a Chinese chartered plane sent to collect them, the Foreign Ministry said. They had not been arrested, and were questioned on a voluntary basis.
Japan also planned to release the Chinese ship, which will be operated by a new crew flown in on the Chinese plane, the ministry said.
A Japanese court has granted prosecutors permission to keep the captain, Zhan Qixiong, in custody until Sept. 19 to decide whether to formally indict him.
Beijing said Friday that it was postponing talks scheduled earlier with Japan on contested undersea deposits in the East China Sea, in a sign of its anger over the case. The talks would have been the second meeting over the gas exploration related to the territorial dispute.
China's State Councilor Dai Bingguo called in Japanese Ambassador Uichiro Niwa after midnight on Sunday morning - the fourth time that he has been summoned over the incident. It was highly unusual for an official of Dai's rank to intercede.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku expressed displeasure over Dai's overnight protest.
"It was regrettable that Ambassador Niwa was summoned at such late hours," Sengoku said, adding that Japan would not release the captain despite the protest.
Sengoku also criticized China for linking the gas exploration talks with the collisions: "They are totally separate issues. We will ask China to reschedule the talks in the near future in order to establish forward-looking Japan-China relations."
A group of about 20 Chinese activists had planned to set sail Monday to the disputed islands from China's eastern coastal city of Xiamen, but later called off the protest.