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Japan To Release Chinese Captain In Boat Collision

Japanese prosecutors say they will release the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel whose detention sparked a major diplomatic row with China.

Chinese officials all the way up to Premier Wen Jiabao had warned of serious countermeasures if the ship captain remained in custody. Beijing has cut off ministerial-level talks with Japan as relations between the two countries spiraled to their worst level in years.

At a Friday news conference in Tokyo, prosecutors announced they would release the 41-year-old captain, Zhan Zixiong, after more than two weeks in Japanese custody. It was unclear when authorities would release him.

The case was still pending, but it looked increasingly unlikely that charges would be filed.

Prosecutors said keeping Zhan in custody would not be appropriate, considering the impact on Japan-China relations. The move came one day after China detained four Japanese nationals on suspicion of entering a military zone, though Japan's chief cabinet spokesman said the two events were not linked.

Zhan was arrested Sept. 8 after his fishing trawler 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.

Located 120 miles east of Taiwan, the islands are controlled by Japan, but also claimed by Taiwan and China. They are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are regularly occupied by nationalists from both sides.

The arrest sparked anti-Japanese protests in numerous locations around China, and the dispute affected cultural and diplomatic ties. On Tuesday, Wen threatened "further action" against Japan if it did not release the captain immediately.

Security remained tight around the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on Friday. Soldiers and police stood watch for several blocks surrounding the building, with SWAT team, paramilitary and riot police vans parked nearby.

At the news conference, prosecutors said Zhan was "just a fishing boat captain" and had no criminal record in Japan. They did not perceive any premeditated intent to damage the patrol boats, said Toru Suzuki, the office's vice prosecutor.

"We have decided that further investigation while keeping the captain in custody would not be appropriate, considering the impact on the people of our country as well as the Japan-China relations in the future," he said.

It was a holiday in China on Friday, and telephone calls to the Foreign Ministry were not answered.

NPR's Louisa Lim reported from Beijing for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.