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Japan premier denies rumors he's resigning

TOKYO — Japan's embattled prime minister told lawmakers Wednesday that he was not about to step down, despite media reports that he had lost his party's support and would be forced to announce his resignation early next week.

Speaking before Parliament, Yoshiro Mori insisted he did not plan to resign and was focusing his attention on seeing the final passage of this year's budget and other government business.

"I have no such intention now," Mori said. "I must work to restore the public's trust while carrying out reforms within the party," he said.

But pressure on Mori to step down appeared to be increasing from within his own governing Liberal Democratic Party.

The mass-circulation Asahi reported that Mori has told party leaders he will formally announce his resignation early next week and leave office next month after the budget clears Parliament's upper house. That is mainly just a formality; the budget was passed by the more powerful lower house last week.

The daily quoted a party official as saying Mori would make the announcement Monday or Tuesday, when the party holds its annual convention. The Yomiuri newspaper, the country's largest, and Kyodo News had similar reports.

Mori's denial, made during in a morning session of the upper house budget committee, did little to stop the speculation. By afternoon, most major newspapers were quoting unidentified party sources as saying his announcement was expected before Tuesday.

Mori assumed office last April after Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a fatal stroke. Mori's tenure has been marred by scandals and gaffes, and his public support ratings have fallen to below 10 percent.

His party is now mired in a scandal involving bribery allegations against several of its members, and Mori himself is under fire from many in the public for continuing a game of golf after hearing that a U.S. submarine had collided with a Japanese high school's fishing boat off Hawaii on Feb. 9.

Officials in Mori's party and its two governing coalition partners have expressed concern that his lack of support could hurt them in elections for the upper house of Parliament in July.

Earlier this week, Mori survived a third no-confidence motion against his administration. A member of his own Cabinet indicated on Tuesday that he believed Mori should step down.

On Friday, Mori was expected to announce a package of emergency economic support steps. The package was likely to include measures to invigorate the stock market, which has fallen to a 15-year low.

Staying in office until next month would also allow Mori to save face by holding a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 25, and possibly also meeting with President Bush. Tokyo is reportedly hoping for such a meeting around March 19.

If Mori were to resign, it's unclear who might replace him.

Among the possible candidates are governing party stalwart Hiromu Nonaka, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, former Health Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chikage Ogi, who heads the Conservative Party, the smallest of the three ruling coalition parties.

Ogi would be Japan's first woman prime minister if selected.