Japan has sent 14 people home to China after they landed on a disputed island claimed by the governments in both Tokyo and Beijing. The deportations are seen as a bid to dodge deeper diplomatic drama.
Japan sent home the first of a group of Chinese activists and reporters late on Friday, two days after arresting them on the disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Five were detained on the Uotsuri Island for violating immigration laws, while the other nine were picked up by the Japanese Coast Guard.
The Japanese Jiji Press news agency reported that the five activists, the reporter and cameraman were being flown back to Hong Kong, with the remaining seven to be sent home on their own vessel.
The first seven deportees took off from Naha airport on the south-western Japanese island of Okinawa, the closest major population center, far to the east of the disputed islands. They were headed for Hong Kong.
Local media reported that the detainees claimed that they needed no documentation to visit the islands, considering them to be Chinese territory.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda decided to deport the activists following a cabinet meeting earlier on Friday. China's deputy foreign minister, Zhang Zhijun, called his Japanese counterpart Sasae Kenichiro on Thursday, urging Japan to "immediately and unconditionally" release them.
Japan and China, the continent's two largest economies, have close economic ties but a troubled history and a keen rivalry dating back centuries. Deportation is widely seen as an attempt to defuse the situation, with Chinese state news agency Xinhua depicting it as such in a prompt editorial.
The contested islands are close to potentially rich reserves of frozen natural gas.
msh / slk (AFP, dpa, Reuters)