China's Wen urges release of captain held by Japan: Xinhua

BEIJING, September 22, 2010 (AFP) - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao urged Japan to release a boat captain "immediately and unconditionally," state media said Wednesday, after his arrest in disputed waters set off a diplomatic crisis.

"Otherwise, China will take further measures," Wen was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency in New York, where he is due to take part in UN meetings and talks with state leaders including US President Barack Obama.

The dispute erupted when a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese coastguard vessels collided on September 7 near disputed islands that lie in rich fishing grounds and near possible oil and gas fields.

Japan arrested the captain, Zhan Qixiong, 41, the following day, citing its domestic law. On Sunday, a court extended his detention until September 29, when he must be either indicted or released.

China has reacted furiously to the arrest, repeatedly demanding Zhan be released, summoning Japan's ambassador six times, suspending senior-level exchanges and cancelling several cultural events.

The disputed islands are known as Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China and are also claimed by Taiwan.

In New York, both Wen and his Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan are due to meet separately with Obama, but China has ruled out any fence-mending talks between the two Asian leaders.

"Obviously the atmosphere is not suitable for such a meeting. The issue has severely hurt bilateral relations," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters on Tuesday.

The issue has also caused consternation among the Chinese public, which is still ambivalent to Japan after its forces occupied swathes of northern China before and during World War II.

Yoshito Sengoku, a top spokesman for the Japanese government, on Tuesday emphasised the importance of keeping nationalist sentiment at bay.

"What is more important than anything is that government officials in charge should be careful not to arouse narrow-minded, extreme nationalism in Japan, China and other countries," he said.

At the weekend, small groups of anti-Japan demonstrators took to the streets in three Chinese cities, but the protests were brief and non-violent.