A fishing boat carrying Taiwanese activists heading to a disputed group of East China Sea islands was repelled Thursday by the Japanese coast guard, Japan's Kyodo news agency said.

The boat, escorted by four Taiwanese coast guard vessels, ignored verbal warnings from the Japanese coastguardsmen after entering an area contiguous with the islands' territorial waters.

The Japanese ships then responded by firing water cannon at the fishing boat, which turned around and left the area shortly afterward along with the Taiwanese coast guard vessels, Kyodo said.

Known as Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyutai in Taiwan and Diaoyu in China, the island chain is claimed by all three countries but controlled by Japan.

Huan Hsi-lin, one of the activists on board the fishing boat, said the goal of the mission was to assert claim to Taiwanese sovereignty over the small archipelago.

The arrival of the Japanese ships sparked concern of a standoff similar to one that occurred in September, when Taiwanese and Japanese coast guard vessels exchanged water cannon.

In August, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou had sought to ease tensions by announcing an initiative to "resolve the disputes and promote joint exploration of the islands' resources."

The uninhabited island chain is believed to be home to significant marine and energy resources.

The Japanese government's decision in September to buy three of the islands from their private Japanese owners sparked protests in several Chinese cities and provoked a rise in anti-Japanese sentiment in that country. EFE