updated 3/26/2007 8:34:09 AM ET 2007-03-26T12:34:09

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, under fire for denying that Japan forced women to work as sex slaves during World War II, offered a fresh apology Monday but refused to clearly acknowledge Japan’s responsibility for running the frontline brothels.

“I express my sympathy toward the comfort women and apologize for the situation they found themselves in,” Abe told a parliamentary debate, using a euphemism used by Japanese politicians to refer to former sex slaves.

“I apologize here and now as prime minister,” he said.

Abe’s apology was his clearest yet since the conservative leader triggered international furor earlier this month by saying there was no evidence that women were coerced into sexual service in the World War II era.

Still, his remarks fall short of demands made by victims that Abe clearly acknowledge that the wartime military was involved in forcing the women into prostitution.

Historians say that as many as 200,000 Asian women, mostly from Korea and China, worked in military-run brothels. Victims say they were forced into the brothels by the Japanese military and were held against their will.

But right-wing politicians, which make up a bulk of Abe’s support base, have in recent weeks made renewed efforts to push for an official revision of the apology.

Compensation mostly rejected
Abe’s earlier denial of coercion drew intense criticism from Beijing and Seoul, which accuse Tokyo of failing to fully atone for wartime invasions and atrocities.

The issue also has stirred debate in the United States, where a committee in the House of Representatives is considering a nonbinding resolution calling on Tokyo to fully acknowledge wrongdoing and make an unambiguous apology.

Abe had said previously he would not offer a fresh apology, saying Tokyo expressed its remorse in a 1993 statement on the matter by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono.

Japan has rejected most compensation claims from victims. Instead, a private fund created in 1995 by the Japanese government has provided a way for Tokyo to support former sex slaves without offering official government compensation.

Many women rejected the payments, demanding government compensation and a parliament-approved apology.

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