By Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Foreign ministers from Japan and Russia on Friday agreed to hold a vice ministerial-level meeting early next year to work toward the resolution of an island dispute and signing of a peace treaty formally ending their World War Two hostilities.
Tokyo and Moscow have conflicting claims over a string of windswept islands called the Southern Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. The dispute has prevented the two from signing a peace treaty for nearly 70 years.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, in a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, was quick to praise improving Russo-Japanese ties, a prerequisite for achieving the difficult tasks of concluding a peace treaty and putting an end to the island dispute.
"Ever since Prime Minster (Shinzo) Abe visited Russia in April, bilateral cooperation has been progressing in many fields such as economy, security and human exchanges," Kishida told Lavrov.
Lavrov, along with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, was in Japan to attend the two countries' first joint meeting of foreign and defense ministers, slated for Saturday.
Lavrov also welcomed improved ties conducive to sensitive negotiations but said Japan should proceed carefully so as not to derail nascent talks.
"I would like to propose that talks be conducted in an atmosphere where making provocative comments is avoided," Lavrov said at a joint news conference that followed his meeting with Kishida.
"In the past, there were negative scenes that made the very continuity of talks questionable. I hope I won't see such scenes resurface."
The two ministers agreed to hold the vice ministerial meeting late January or early February next year. Kishida himself plans to visit Russia next spring to have another meeting with Lavrov.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka)