MOSCOW (AP) _ Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Sunday reaffirmed Moscow's adherence to a 1956 declaration in which the Soviet Union said it was ready to hand over two of the four disputed Kuril Islands to Japan.

Japan has long pushed Russia to return the islands, which the Soviet Union occupied in the closing days of World War II. The dispute has prevented the nations from concluding a postwar peace treaty.

Lavrov told NTV television that Russia respects the 1956 declaration along with other legal obligations it has inherited from the Soviet Union. ``As the successor state, we recognize this declaration, but its implementation requires a dialogue,'' he said.

Although the Kremlin has voiced its respect to the 1956 declaration in the past, some observers viewed Lavrov's statement as an attempt to probe public reaction to a possible deal.

``It's obvious that we are ready to embark on a road toward signing a peace accord and settling the issue of the islands' transfer,'' Sergei Karaganov, the head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, told the Interfax news agency. The council is a prominent Russian think-tank.