HIROSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - Japan marked the 65th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Friday with the United States represented at the ceremony for the first time.
A peace bell tolled at 8:15 a.m., the time the bomb was dropped by the U.S. B-29 warplane Enola Gay on August 6, 1945, as tens of thousands of elderly survivors, children and dignitaries held a minute of silence under the burning summer sun.
"Clearly, the urgency of nuclear weapons abolition is permeating our global conscience," Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba said in a speech followed by the release of white doves.
The Hiroshima bomb, nicknamed "Little Boy," released a mix of shockwaves, heat rays and radiation, killing thousands instantly.
By the end of 1945, the death toll had risen to some 140,000 out of an estimated population of 350,000. Thousands more died of illness and injuries later.
Three days after the Hiroshima attack, on August 9, 1945, the United States dropped a second nuclear bomb on the city of Nagasaki in southern Japan. Japan surrendered six days later, ending the military aggression that brought it into World War Two.
The United States, recently involved in a row with Tokyo over the relocation of a U.S. air base on the southern Japan island of Okinawa, sent a representative to the ceremony for the first time, reflecting President Barack Obama's push to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
"For the sake of future generations, we must continue to work together to realise a world without nuclear weapons," U.S. Ambassador John Roos said in a statement.
Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year in part for his vision of a nuclear-free world, signed a strategic arms agreement with Russia in April that commits the former Cold War foes to cut deployed nuclear warheads by about 30 percent.
"We see new leadership from the most powerful nations," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the ceremony, the first time a U.N. leader has attended. "We must keep up this momentum."
Japanese media reports have said a panel of expert advisers will soon urge Japan to loosen its ban on allowing nuclear weapons into the country, as the government plans a defence review by the end of the year.
But Prime Minister Naoto Kan said on Friday that Japan would stick to its self-imposed ban on the possession, production and import of nuclear arms.
Some conservative politicians, wary of giant neighbour China's growing military might, have called for a debate on Japan having its own nuclear weapons, although there is little support among the broader public.
"We want nuclear disarmament, and if the United States takes the lead other countries may follow its steps," said Tomiko Matsumoto, a 78-year-old atomic bomb survivor.
"First I hated them (the United States), but that hatred has disappeared. Now I want to see a peaceful world."
Editing by Nick Macfie