Taiwan ex-leader Lee draws fire over islands

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Taiwan's ex-leader Lee Teng-hui came under fire Thursday after he was quoted by Japanese media as saying that a disputed archipelago in the East China Sea belongs to Japan.

Lee, 89, who was president from 1988 to 2000, made the remarks about the islands -- known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese -- in the Japanese magazine Shukan Bunshun.

"The Senkaku islands were Japanese territory in the past and are still so at present," he said according to the magazine.

"If you say Senkaku belongs to Taiwan it may please the (Taiwan) people... But I have clearly said since the years when I was the president that Senkaku is Japanese territory."

The remarks triggered the ire of several lawmakers, who accused Lee of selling out Taiwan amid growing tension over the islands, which are claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.

"His remarks are shameful and I hope he'll correct them," said lawmaker Chen Chen-hsiang of the ruling Kuomintang party that Lee once led.

The islands have long been at the centre of a territorial dispute between Japan and China, and a fresh row was sparked after Japan announced Tuesday it had completed a planned purchase of some of the islands.

Taipei has recalled its envoy to Japan to protest the Japanese move while Beijing has dispatched two patrol ships to assert its sovereignty following the purchase.

Lee's spokesman Wang Yen-chun dismissed the criticism, adding the ex-president made his remarks from "the historical and legal perspective that Diaoyu islands should be Japan's".

The islands, which are around 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Japan's Okinawa chain and about 200 kilometres from Taiwan, lie on vital shipping lanes and are believed to lie near potentially rich gas fields.