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Japan to buy East China Sea islands, also claimed by China, for $26 million, reports say

(AP) TOKYO — The Japanese government has agreed to buy several privately owned islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China, media reports said Wednesday.

The government has agreed to buy three of the five main islands, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, from the Kurihara family for 2.05 billion yen ($26 million), Kyodo News agency and the Yomiuri and Asahi newspapers reported, citing anonymous sources.

A Japanese government official declined to confirm the deal and said negotiations were continuing.

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Tensions over the islands have flared since April, when Tokyo's nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, announced a plan for the city government to raise money to buy the islands so that they would not be vulnerable to purchase by an outside third party such as China.

China does not recognize the Japanese family's ownership of the islands, so the deal would not affect China's claim to them.

Last weekend, Tokyo sent a team of experts to waters around the islands to survey fishing grounds and possible sites for development, a move that was strongly criticized by China. Activists from Japan and Hong Kong briefly set foot on the uninhabited islands last month, and hundreds of Chinese have gathered in street protests in various cities in recent weeks.

The media reports said funding for the purchase would require Cabinet approval, and that that was likely to happen in the next week or two. They said the final deal could be closed by the end of the month.

Phone calls to a member of the Kurihara family and business went unanswered.

Although the government's purchase of the islands would undoubtedly anger China, the reports said that it was intended more as a means of squelching Ishihara's more inflammatory proposal, which includes development plans. The islands are near key sea lanes and surrounded by rich fishing grounds and untapped natural resources.

No development would take place under the national plan, the reports said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the government and owner are still talking and he would not comment on details about the discussion.

"We are negotiating with the owner while we try to grasp where the situation stands between (the central government) and the Tokyo metropolitan government," Fujimura said. He said the government would make an announcement "when we reach a result after completing the process."

Responding to reporters' questions Wednesday, Ishihara said he had spoken to the owners of the islands and claimed they told him that no final deal had been made yet. City officials said there has been no change in Tokyo's plans to try to buy them, or for Ishihara to visit the area himself sometime next month. They said, however, that the government was dealing directly with Ishihara, and said they did not know the context of those talks.

Government representatives met with Kurihara family members on Monday and agreed on the basic terms of the sale, the reports said.

The dispute over the islands grabbed headlines after a Sept. 7, 2010, incident in which a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese coast guard ships near the islands. The Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested and then released.

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