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Japanese ex-PM praises 'happy life' in Crimea

Simferopol (AFP) - A controversial former Japanese prime minister on Wednesday praised life in Crimea as "happy" as he slammed Tokyo's position on the seizure of the peninsula by Russia during a contentious visit.

"The Crimeans live a happy, peaceful life," former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama told reporters in Simferopol, the regional centre in Crimea.

Hatoyama on Tuesday arrived in Crimea on a three-day trip despite opposition from Tokyo, saying he wanted to see life on the peninsula for himself.

Tokyo joined the West in introducing sanctions against Russia for seizing Crimea from Ukraine last March.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters earlier the government had tried to stop the gaffe-prone former prime minister from travelling to the annexed peninsula.

Speaking to reporters, Hatoyama said that last year's referendum which saw a majority in Crimea vote to split from Ukraine was conducted in accordance with democratic norms despite being rejected internationally.

"The fact that a Japanese delegation is visiting Crimea amid sanctions is naturally perceived as unacceptable behaviour," he added in comments translated into Russian.

"The Japanese government may criticise our actions but I believe that the very existence of this criticism stresses the significance of this work."

Hatoyama added he felt ashamed for the Japanese media, saying Japan was taking its cue from "the West, first and foremost the United States."

"It's shameful that information from Japanese and Western media is one-sided. You have to have courage to let the public know real facts that do exist."

Mitsuhiro Kimura, leader of the right-wing political group Issuikai who travelled with Hatoyama, called their delegation's visit "historic."

"Maybe it will give us a chance to influence Japan's foreign policies and change them."

Hatoyama's delegation earlier travelled to the resort city of Yalta and was also set to meet local officials.

The delegation also visited the Livadia Palace, which hosted the 1945 "Big Three" Yalta summit where Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt and Britain's Winston Churchill met to decide the fate of the post-war world.

Hatoyama, a hugely wealthy man, became prime minister in 2009 at the head of the Democratic Party of Japan, but his chaotic premiership ended just nine months later after a series of policy flip-flops and blunders.

His previous attempts at personal diplomacy included a 2012 trip to Iran, made against the wishes of his government.

Crimea, which was part of Soviet Russia until 1954, was formally annexed by Moscow on March 18, triggering international condemnation.

Russian television this week revealed how President Vladimir Putin gave the secret order for his troops to move into Crimea in February last year.