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Fifty years after World War II ended in the Pacific, Japan apologized on Tuesday for starting a conflict that killed up to 20 million people.

There was praise for the apology but also disappointment and anger that the Land of the Rising Sun waited so long to say sorry and still refuses to consider backing up words with compensation.Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama uttered the long-shunned "A-word" in a national television address that sent bells ringing around the world.

He delivered the historic apology in somber tones, reading a statement that had the weight of the Japanese government behind it because the wording was cleared by all three partners in his ruling coalition.

Murayama did not hold back in admitting Japan's wrongdoing and was forthright and unambiguous in his apology.

"In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I . . . express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology," Murayama said.

The apology followed a parliamentary resolution in July which only expressed "deep reflection" about Japan's actions.

But the 71-year-old Socialist prime minister enraged tens of thousands of former Allied prisoners of war and other victims when he told a press conference there was no question of giving them compensation for their suffering.

"All individual compensation has been dealt with in the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty and other bilateral treaties," he said. "We have faithfully met terms of those agreements."

Some British veterans threatened a boycott of Japanese products while Australian veterans said only an apology by the Japanese parliament would satisfy them.

"Whereas the Germans have apologized and paid out some $110 billion in reparations and compensation, the Japanese have done neither," said Martyn Day, a British lawyer representing veterans seeking compensation of $22,000 each.

The White House reaction was positive. "We welcome the prime minister's statement, delivered in the spirit of the close bilateral relations that we hope point us to a future of cooperation and progress," spokesman Mike McCurry said.

There was also a calmer and more positive reaction from the leaders of the many Asian nations who suffered most in the nearly four-year-long war that started with the "Day of Infamy" sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

China welcomed the gesture but said some people and politicians in Japan still clung to denials of aggression.

"We believe that the Japanese government's gesture is positive . . . in that they have apologized to people of various countries in Asia," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

"I think this must be hailed by all sides from all over the world," Philippines President Fidel Ramos said.

Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said Murayama's apology was comprehensive and would satisfy most of the wartime opponents of Japan.

South Korea urged Japan to go further in accounting for its wartime actions.

There appeared no immediate groundswell of anger against Mu-ra-yama from his country's right-wing groups who say their country was forced into World War II by Western colonialism.

They have also held out against an apology because it would dishonor Japan's own war dead.

"Remorse and apology is just what the government says," said Tadashi Yamada, 75, as he prayed at Japan's biggest shrine for the war dead in central Tokyo. "It's a big mistake to think this is what Japanese people think."

But there was backing for Murayama's action in a newspaper poll which said more than 50 percent of Japanese do not believe they have done enough to atone for the past.