TOKYO - Japan brushed off warnings by China and bought a group of islands on Tuesday that both claim, in a growing dispute that threatens ties between Asia's two biggest economies.

Chinese official media said Beijing had sent two patrol ships to waters surrounding the islands to reassert its claim and accused Japan of "playing with fire" over the long-simmering row.

Tokyo insisted that it had only peaceful intentions in making the 2.05 billion yen ($26.18 million) purchase of three uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, until now leased by the government from a Japanese family that has owned them since early 1970s.

Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba repeated Japan's standard line that the purchase served "peaceful and stable maintenance of the islands."

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