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Russia says begins military exercises in Pacific islands also claimed by Japan

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia began military exercises in the Kurile Islands in the Pacific Ocean, a Defence Ministry spokesman said on Tuesday, a move likely to anger Japan, which also lays claim to them.

"Exercises began involving military units in the region, which are deploying to the Kurile Islands," Colonel Alexander Gordeyev, a spokesman for Russia's Eastern Military District, told the Russian news agency Interfax.

He said more than 1,000 troops, five Mi-8AMTSh attack helicopters and 100 other pieces of military hardware would be involved in the manoeuvres.

The dispute has strained relations Japan and Russia since World War Two, when Soviet forces occupied the four islands at the southern end of the Kurile chain. Japan says the islands are part of its territory and wants Moscow to hand them over.

Russia is also at odds with Western powers over what NATO says is its massing of military forces along the border with Ukraine for a possible invasion to boost pro-Russian separatists in the country's east. Moscow denies any such intent.

(Reporting by Polina Devitt, writing by Alissa de Carbonnel, Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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