European edition, Saturday, July 21, 2007

RAF MILDENHALL, England — For the second time in less than a week, NATO air forces scrambled fighter jets on Friday in response to Russian aircraft straying toward — and allegedly into — British airspace.

Officials from Norway and Britain confirmed Friday they dispatched fighter jets four days after a contingent of Norwegian F-16s and British Tornados shadowed a set of Russian aircraft traveling toward British airspace.

Russian officials, meanwhile, denied the incident, which occurred amid the escalation of the diplomatic row between the United Kingdom and Russia over the extradition of a high-profile Russian murder suspect.

“The planes did not disturb British airspace, but they fulfilled the pre-planned flights,” said Russian military spokesman Col. Alexander Drobyshevsky through an interpreter. “We planned such flights a half-year ago.”

Russian air force commander Col. Gen. Alexander Zelemim also issued a statement through an interpreter.

“Our flight was above neutral waters,” Zelemim said. “Such flights were fulfilled and will be fulfilled again to the plans of the air force.”

A British Ministry of Defence spokesman, however, said a set of Tornados from RAF Leeming in Yorkshire intercepted two Russian aircraft early Friday morning after they violated British airspace around 2 a.m. London time.

Norwegian military spokesman Lt. Col. John Inge Oeglaend told the Associated Press that the country’s F-16s were scrambled twice. The first time, they sought out two Russian Tu-95 bombers headed south along the Norwegian coast in international airspace. Those bombers turned around above Aberdeen on Scotland’s North Sea coast.

In the second, two Tu-160 bombers were seen flying near Norwegian airspace over the Barents Sea, he told the AP.

Oeglaend told the wire service that the incidents were routine but said it was a “bit unusual that the first two bombers went so far south.” Aberdeen is about 50 miles below the southern tip of Norway.

The second military scrambling this week occurred as relations between Britain and Russian soured further when Russia responded to Britain’s expulsion of four diplomats from London by expelling four British diplomats from Moscow.

Britain remains steadfast in its demand to extradite Andrei Lugovoy for the alleged murder of Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with a radioactive substance in November at a posh central London hotel.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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