U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing taxi towards the flight line before take-off at RAF Lakenheath, England, October 19, 2017.

U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing taxi towards the flight line before take-off at RAF Lakenheath, England, October 19, 2017. (William Howard/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — American stealth fighter jets fired warning flares near Russian fighters over eastern Syria on Wednesday in an attempt to drive them out of airspace controlled by the U.S.-led, anti-Islamic State coalition, Pentagon officials said.

Two American F-22 Raptors intercepted a pair of Russian Su-25 Frogfoot fighters that had crossed the Euphrates River, the agreed upon line to separate the two nations’ bombing campaigns against ISIS militants in the region, said Air Force Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a spokesman for Air Forces Central Command. A Russian Su-35 Flanker also crossed the river during the incident.

The encounter near Abu Kamal, one of the final areas where ISIS controls land in Syria, lasted some 40 minutes, Pickart said Thursday. The F-22 pilots made several attempts to warn the Russian pilots to leave the area via an emergency communications channel, he said. Then, the U.S. pilots deployed the flares.

At one point, one of the Su-25s flew dangerously close to one of the F-22s, forcing the American pilot to “aggressively maneuver to avoid a midair collision,” Pickart said.

Last month, American and Russian officials established a 45-mile line along the Euphrates River in an effort to avoid potential encounters in the air, according to the Pentagon. The Russians, and the Syrian regime forces they support, agreed to remain west of the river, while the coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces agreed to remain to its east.

But American officials warn of a troubling pattern of Russian and Syrian incursions east of the Euphrates.

Pickart said the Russians have flown east of the Euphrates on average six to eight times per day, amounting to about 10 percent of their flights.

“The coalition’s greatest concern is that we could shoot down a Russian aircraft because its actions are seen as a threat to our air or ground forces,” he said. “We train our aircrews to take specific actions and to make every attempt possible to de-escalate the situation wherever possible.”

Pickart said the U.S. and other coalition forces remain focused on destroying ISIS, which has lost some 98 percent of the territory it once controlled in Syria and Iraq. However, he said, the coalition would defend itself or SDF fighters if they were threatened.

“It’s become increasingly tough for our pilots to discern whether Russian pilots’ actions are deliberate or if these are just honest mistakes,” Pickart said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday during a visit to Syria announced victory over ISIS and said he would withdraw much of his troops from the country.

Pentagon officials have been publicly skeptical of Putin’s announcement, saying the Russians have previously announced plans to withdraw troops from Syria without actually downsizing its force there.

“There have been no meaningful reductions in combat troops following Russia’s previous announcements [of] planned departures from Syria,” Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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