Activists questioned amid Japan-China island row

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Media captionSome of the men shouted "Japan get out of Diaoyutai" as they were led off a boat in Okinawa

Japanese police have questioned a group of activists who landed on disputed islands, amid reports that Tokyo could deport them.

The group are currently being held in Okinawa, after sailing from Hong Kong to islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

China has called for the activists' immediate and unconditional release.

The case has sparked a diplomatic row and a number of small protests outside Japanese diplomatic missions.

The activists could be handed over to immigration officials on Friday, Kyodo news agency reports citing government sources, but this has not been confirmed.

Japanese police brought the group to the island of Okinawa on Thursday after detaining them on Wednesday.

"They all deny the allegation of illegal entry, saying the islands are part of Chinese territory," a police spokesman was quoted by Agence-France Presse news agency as saying.

Small groups of protesters in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong demanded that the activists be released. They held signs that declared the disputed islands part of China and shouted anti-Japanese slogans.

'Not helpful'

The group set sail for the islands on Sunday. Japanese coastguard vessels surrounded the boat as it approached the islands - which are controlled by Japan - but seven of the activists jumped overboard and swam ashore.

It is the first time non-Japanese nationals have landed on the islands since 2004.

Both Japan and China lodged formal protests with each other over the incident.

The United States had urged the two nations to resolve the conflict peacefully.

"Any kinds of provocations are not helpful in that regard," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Tensions between China and Japan have been rumbling in recent months over the islands in the East China Sea, which Taiwan also claims.

Largely uninhabited, they are close to strategically important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and are thought to contain oil deposits.

The disputed islands have caused ties to freeze between the two countries in the past.

In September 2010, relations between China and Japan plummeted after the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain near the islands.

The captain was accused of ramming two Japanese patrol vessels in the area, but Japan eventually dropped the charges against him.

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