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Was it or wasn't it? For three days, Great Britain has been trying to figure out whether Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama really did apologize for his country's atrocities during World War II.

Yes, the British government initially said. Then the Japanese said no. Now the Japanese Embassy in London says it was an apology. But nobody here is absolutely certain.As the world prepares to commemorate the end of World War II, Japan's indecision about whether to apologize for its treatment of prisoners of war has angered many in Britain, especially veterans.

It began Friday when Prime Minister John Major's office said Murayama had apologized in a letter for Japan's actions, "which caused such unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people."

Major was glad to have in writing what Japanese leaders had told him in the past, his office said.

Some British veterans initially thought it was the long-awaited Japanese government apology and were delighted. Others said the fact that the letter was private showed how far Japan had to go.

But at least, they said, it was a start.

Less than 24 hours later, the Kyodo news agency quoted Mura-yama as telling Japanese reporters, "It was not a letter of apology."

The news service later modified the report, saying it would be better to paraphrase Murayama as saying that while the letter contained an expression of remorse, it was not solely meant as a letter of apology.

In Britain, there was dismay.

The front-page banner headline in The Sunday Telegraph called it the "Sorry Saga of the Japanese `Apology' That Nearly Was." The Observer headlined: "Sorry, That Was Not An Apology - Japan" and called it "a sorry tale."

"I am speechless," said Arthur Titherington, 73, secretary of the Japanese Labor Camp Survivors Association, who was sent to a copper mine during captivity. "It sounds as though someone has got at Murayama."

Attorney Martyn Day, who represents veterans suing the Japanese government for compensa-tion, told The Sunday Telegraph he "would call on the British people to boycott Japanese goods to get justice."

On Sunday, the Japanese Embassy in London issued a statement saying Murayama had apologized.