ISGHIHAKI, Japan - Japan on Friday deported pro-Beijing activists who had sailed to a disputed island, as Tokyo moved swiftly to put an end to a potentially damaging row with China.
Half of the group were put aboard a commercial airliner in the Okinawan main city of Naha, bound directly for Hong Kong, with the other half taken back to their boat in Ishigaki.
They were expected to be escorted out of Japanese territorial waters by the coastguard.
The deportations came just 48 hours after some of the 14 had become the first non-Japanese to set foot on any part of the archipelago since 2004.
Earlier Friday the government's top spokesman had told reporters the prime minister had approved the deportations.
"The prime minister has received detailed reports on the illegal landing," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura. "He yesterday decided to approve of the related agencies' final conclusion to deport" the 14 activists.
Fujimura denied the decision had been taken on grounds of political expediency.
"This is not something the government has decided on emotionally. We firmly and strictly responded in accordance with our domestic law," he told a news conference.
Premier Yoshihiko Noda, who had been under pressure to act on an issue that is keenly felt in Beijing, and who has also been dealing with a territorial spat with South Korea, called a special cabinet meeting on Friday.
"It is really regrettable that they entered Japan's territorial waters and illegally landed on Uotsurijima, despite our repeated warnings," he told his ministers.
Noda's move was criticised by Tokyo's nationalist governor Shintaro Ishihara, who has declared his intention to buy the islands from their private owner.
"It is a distinct criminal case," Ishihara told reporters in Tokyo. "We can't call Japan a real law-governed country if it sends them back as mere illegal aliens."
After he was put on board the Hong Kong-bound aeroplane, activist Lo Chung-cheong told Hong Kong's Cable News that approaching the island by boat had been "like a war".
"We have done things that the governments from both sides won't do or do not have the guts to do," Lo said, adding he does not know if there will be any chances to reach the islands in the future.
The group set off from Hong Kong on Sunday. Five of them were arrested on one of the islands -- known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese -- on Wednesday, the 67th anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender.
China's foreign ministry said in a statement earlier Friday they had been pushing for the immediate release of the detainees.
"China's stance on Diaoyu islands is clear and unwavering," the statement said.
"Any unilateral measures taken by Japan towards Chinese citizens is illegal and invalid. The Chinese government already sent stern messages to Japan many times over its illegal arrest and detention of Chinese citizens."
The rapid move to deport the group, which had been widely expected, stands in sharp contrast to the diplomatic calamity of 2010 when it held a Chinese trawlerman for two weeks after he rammed coastguard vessels.
Japan was widely criticised as having caved in to Chinese pressure and being forced into releasing the man after Beijing halted high level contacts and stymied trade.
In 2004, when a group of Chinese activists landed on one of the disputed islands, the then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi ordered their expulsion after two days.
The renewed dispute over the islands comes as Japan's relations with South Korea also become increasingly frayed after President Lee Myung-Bak last week visited islets controlled by Seoul but claimed by Tokyo.