Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to take a “step-by-step” approach in resolving a territorial dispute with Russia left over from World War II.

Abe told a rally of former residents of the islands and their supporters Thursday that settling the conflict over four islands north of Hokkaido that are controlled by Russia was difficult but necessary.

Regaining the islands seized by the Soviet Union in the final days of the war has been a priority for Abe and his conservative base. In November, he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 Soviet proposal to return two of the islands to Japan. That suggestion angered Russian nationalists.

For seven decades, the dispute has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from signing a peace treaty.

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