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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg previews upcoming meeting of NATO Defence Ministers during a press conference given at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Monday, June 22, 2015. On Tuesday, Stoltenberg rejected Moscow's assertion that a recent Turkish airspace violation by a Russian fighter jet was an accident.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg previews upcoming meeting of NATO Defence Ministers during a press conference given at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Monday, June 22, 2015. On Tuesday, Stoltenberg rejected Moscow's assertion that a recent Turkish airspace violation by a Russian fighter jet was an accident. (Courtesy of NATO)

NATO’s top official on Tuesday accused Russia of a deliberate incursion into alliance airspace, dismissing Moscow’s assertion that the recent crossing of jets into Turkish territory was a mistake.

“The information and intelligence we have received provides me with reason to say it is not an accident,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a news conference at his headquarters in Brussels.

As defense ministers from the 28-nation alliance prepare to meet on Thursday, NATO faces a series of challenges on its eastern and southern flanks. In Afghanistan, the deadly U.S. bombing of a Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz promises to complicate NATO planning for its future role in the country.

Stoltenberg said a full investigation had been launched into the bombing, which has sparked allegations of war crimes from the medical nonprofit. All facts must be presented in an “open and transparent way,” he said.

Allies are expected to examine the size and duration of the mission in Afghanistan, though Stoltenberg offered no timeline for a NATO decision on future troop levels there. He said the implications of the recent Afghan fighting season still need to be assessed.

To the south, Russia’s military buildup in Syria and recent incursion into Turkish airspace is a source of rising concern, Stoltenberg said.

“Russia must de-conflict its military activities in Syria,” Stoltenberg said. “I’m also concerned that Russia is not targeting (the Islamic State) but instead attacking the Syrian opposition and civilians.”

Moscow says its jets have been bombing Islamic State targets throughout the past week, including command centers, communications hubs, ammunition depots, as well as tanks and other vehicles.

Stoltenberg cited two cases in which Russian combat aircraft crossed into Turkish airspace over the weekend, something Russia said was an error. While crediting intelligence reports to support the view that the crossing was intentional, Stoltenberg offered no specifics and declined to comment on whether Russian radar has locked on Turkish fighters that scrambled to respond.

“This doesn’t look as an accident. This is a serious violation of the airspace,” he said.

So far, NATO has not accessed military lines of communication to get a full a explanation from Russia, but such a step is being considered, Stoltenberg said.

When allies meet Thursday, they are expected to approve plans crafted in response to a more assertive Russia on the alliance’s eastern flank and instability to the south. NATO will endorse a plan to double the size of its crisis-response force to 40,000 troops and will consider additional capabilities that may be needed in the south, Stoltenberg said. In addition, two new NATO headquarters — small “force integration units” — will be established in Hungary and Slovakia to help NATO plan its growing number of exercises in eastern Europe, he said.

“This is the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War.”

While the crisis in Ukraine is what sparked NATO’s efforts to build up its response capabilities, including the establishment of a 5,000 spearhead force, those assets can be applied to the alliance’s southern flank if needed, he said.

NATO also is examining the allied Naval presence in the region and is preparing to deploy drones to the Italian island of Sicily to improve intelligence gathering.

“It’s also very relevant to the challenges we see to the south,” he said. “It (the response force) is something we can also deploy and use in the south if and when needed.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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