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President Boris Yeltsin on Wednesday put off a visit to Japan that had been heading toward diplomatic disaster because of an intractable territorial dispute.

A senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters that the visit, set for Sept. 13-16, had been postponed."We are not entitled to make official statements, but the visit has been put off," said the official, who asked not to be named.

The news broke after Yeltsin's Security Council had discussed the visit, which Moscow had hoped would unblock billions of dollars worth of aid and investment for Russia's teetering economy.

The postponement at only four days notice is a snub for the Japanese, who had warned that there was no point in Yeltsin coming empty-handed.

Japan's NHK public television said Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa rushed to his official residence to receive an emergency call from the Russian president. No details of the conversation were disclosed.

It had become increasingly clear that Yeltsin would have very little room to maneuver at the talks, which were to focus on four islands just off the northern Japanese coast seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II.

Japan is refusing to grant Russia much-needed financial aid until the issue of the four southernmost Kurile Islands, which Tokyo calls the Northern Territories, is resolved.

But the Russian leader, with warnings from conservative opponents not to hand over the islands ringing in his ears, said last week he would not transfer them during the visit.

Yeltsin's position has been weakened by a lack of visible results from the radical economic reforms of acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's government and the need to fend off persistent attacks from conservatives.

"This was to be expected. The trip had become too politicized. I thought they would look for some excuse (to call it off)," said Semyon Verbitsky, senior researcher at Russia's Oriental Studies Institute.

"Things are very dangerous for him - things are too tense for the visit," he said in a telephone interview.