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Winning praise from his hosts, Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued an apology Tuesday to hundreds of thousands of Japanese POWs forced to work in Siberia after World War II.

But Yeltsin was not expected to be as conciliatory on Japan's claim to several Russian-held northern islands, another thorny issue from the past and one that has chilled relations between the two nations since the war.Coming just one week after he crushed an uprising by rebellious lawmakers in Moscow, Yeltsin's visit was seen as a demonstration of his hold on power.

Soviet authorities kept roughly 600,000 Japanese soldiers in Siberia for years of hard labor after the war ended. Historians believe tens of thousands of the prisoners died, and the last survivor was not allowed to return until 1956.

Yeltsin called the treatment of the prisoners "inhuman" and offered apologies in separate meetings with Emperor Akihito and Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who said he greatly appreciated the remarks.

A similar apology, followed by a deep bow, received loud applause at a luncheon for business leaders.

Though demands for reparations remain, the apology was much stronger than one by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, who said only that he was sorry for those Japanese who died.

In a concession of their own, Japanese officials decided to keep the dispute over the Kuril Islands off the morning agenda. But a senior Foreign Ministry official said it was to be discussed later.

The dispute poses a particularly difficult dilemma for Yeltsin. Surrendering the islands could weaken him at home, where nationalists have accused Moscow of yielding too much territory following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Keeping the islands, however, limits the amount of aid Tokyo is willing to provide the ailing Russian economy.

Yeltsin cancelled two earlier state visits because of Japan's insistence on addressing the issue.