Spy plane strikes nerve in Russia
By MARA D. BELLABY
MOSCOW -- Russia delivered a statement of protest to the U.S. Embassy on Saturday, accusing Washington of tactics associated with the Cold War after a U.S. spy plane flew near Russia's border with neighboring Georgia.
Two Russian fighters were scrambled to track the U-2 spy plane as it flew 12 to 19 miles from the Russian border Saturday, the Defense Ministry said, according to Russian news agencies.
The U.S. Embassy said it had no comment.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Nikolai Deryabin was quoted as saying that air defense systems locked onto the American plane as it began its flight over the former Soviet republic of Georgia, an impoverished Caucasus Mountains nation. Washington has identified remote border regions of Georgia as a possible haven for Islamic terrorists, including militants linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
"To prevent the possible breach of the Russian border, two destroyers were sent up," Deryabin was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
The Russian Foreign Ministry later said that Saturday's flight by the American plane followed two earlier incidents on March 7 and Feb. 27, prompting Saturday's statement of protest.
"The U.S. is known to explain that the task of such flights is to spot and identify international terrorists and their bases," the ministry said in a statement.
"However we have already conveyed to the American side our concern in connection with such intelligence activity near Russia's border, which can hardly be of real use for the purpose of fighting international terrorism and is more reminiscent of a practice associated with 'Cold War' times."
The Foreign Ministry said that the flights "provoke additional tension in a region that is sensitive from the viewpoint of Russia's security interests."
Russia also said the intelligence gathering was "even more out of place" in light of the recent tension between Washington and Moscow over the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, which the Kremlin strongly opposes.
Georgia is eager to bind itself closer to the West and rebuffed Russian offers to rid the region of militants. Last year, it accepted U.S. help in forming its own anti-terrorist units to fight the militants.
Russian President Vladimir Putin did not object to the U.S. training, which is continuing.
But Russian-Georgian relations have been tense, particularly over the Kremlin's concerns that Georgian efforts to round up the militants have failed to yield significant results.
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