Japanese nationalists set sail for disputed islands: AFP

Activists sit in a boat prior to their departure.

ISHIGAKI, Japan - A flotilla of boats carrying Japanese nationalists, including parliamentarians, set sail Saturday for islands at the heart of a bitter dispute with China, an AFP reporter said.

The 20 vessels left the southwestern Japanese island of Ishigaki at 8:30 pm (1130 GMT), an AFP journalist on board one of the boats reported, despite anger from Beijing.

The fleet, carrying around 150 people, was expected to arrive at the archipelago, known as Senkaku in Japan and as Diaoyu in China, around sunrise (2130 GMT Saturday).

"Fortunately, the international community generally recognises that the Senkaku Islands are Japanese, but I think this kind of expedition will help raise awareness around the world," parliamentarian Keiko Yamatani told AFP.

The Japanese government has refused permission for the group to land on the islands. Organisers said ahead of their departure that they would be holding a ceremony aboard boats moored "within touching distance" of the shore.

Tokyo on Friday deported pro-Beijing activists who had landed on one of the islands, hoping to defuse a row with China.

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