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Former Taiwan Leader Defends Visit to Japan's Controversial Shrine

Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui has concluded a controversial trip to Japan by claiming Taiwan is already independent from China, and rejecting Beijing's criticism of his visit to Japan's Yasukuni Shrine. Catherine Makino reports from Tokyo.

Taiwan's former President Lee Teng-hui told reporters on Saturday that Taiwan is effectively already independent, and should not worry about anything China said on the matter.

"Taiwan is already an independent country," he said. "It is natural that the Taiwanese people clearly assert that Taiwan is theirs, and that Taiwan is an independent county based on peace and democracy."

One Chinese man was so angry at the claim that he threw two plastic bottles at Mr. Lee at the airport as he prepared to end his private trip to Japan. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has threatened war if Taiwan ever seeks to formalize its status.

Beijing also criticized Mr. Lee and his Japanese hosts for his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. The presence there of 14 war criminals, among more than 2.5 million war dead, angers China, South Korea, and other countries who see the shrine as glorifying Japan's militaristic past.

Mr. Lee says he went to the shrine to pay respects to his brother who was killed during World War II while serving with Japan's navy in the Philippines.

"The visit to pay respects to my brother is a private affair," he said. "I had a longing to visit my brother since we do not have single locket of his hair or a bone. I am very grateful to Yasukuni shrine."

He says it is an experience he will never forget and that it is the right of countries to honor the souls of young soldiers who died serving their countries.

He rejected China's criticism of his visit, saying he believed the Chinese and Koreans invented the Yasukuni problem, because they could not deal with problems in their own countries.

Mr. Lee was president of Taiwan from 1988-2000, and has long been a harsh critic of Beijing.

During his speech on Saturday Mr. Lee also said the United States is now paralyzed because of the war in Iraq. He said decisions made by President Bush had weakened the U.S. so that it had lost its leadership role in Asia and respect in the world.