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Officials from Japan to visit disputed islands

TOKYO -- Tokyo city officials intending to buy tiny islands at the center of a longtime territorial dispute with China left by boat on Saturday to survey the area ahead of the purchase they hope will bolster Japan's claim.

The five uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan have become a major symbol of patriotic pride for some people in China and Japan. They are near key sea lanes and are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and untapped natural resources.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has raised 1.45 billion yen (US$19 million) in private donations over the last several months to buy the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyu in Taiwan, from individual Japanese owners.

Ishihara, a popular nationalist, told reporters Friday he had spoken with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and offered to turn over ownership of the islands to the central government for free.

The boat left southwestern Japan late Saturday and is to circle the islands for about 10 hours on Sunday to study the area, examine animal and plant life, and measure the depth of coastal waters, according to the city government.

Ishihara wants to eventually build a lighthouse, a dock and a weather observatory on the islands. He has expressed interest in personally going to the islands, possibly next month, but is not part of this voyage.

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