From Josh Smith and Joyce Lee
SEOUL, 23 July – South Korean fighter planes fired hundreds of warning shots at a Russian military aircraft that entered South Korean airspace on Tuesday, defense officials said, while Russia denied the violation of airspace and accused South Korean pilots of being reckless.
It was the first time a Russian military aircraft had violated South Korean airspace, a South Korean Ministry of National Defense official said in Seoul.
The incident, which also involved China and Japan, could complicate relations and increase tensions in a region that has been overshadowed for years by hostility between the United States and North Korea.
Two Russian Tu-95 bombers and two Chinese H-6 bombers jointly entered the Korea Air Defence Identification Zone (KADIZ) early Tuesday, said the South Korean Defense Ministry.
A separate Russian A-50 early warning and control aircraft later twice violated South Korean airspace over Dokdo – an island occupied by South Korea and also claimed by Japan, which calls it Takeshima – shortly after 9 a.m. (midnight GMT Monday), the South Korean military said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that two strategic Tu-95 bombers had carried out a planned flight, but denied that they had violated South Korean airspace and said it would not recognize South Korean KADIZ.
There were no warning shots from the South Korean fighters, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that no A-50 aircraft was mentioned.
The Russian Ministry said that two South Korean F-16 fighters were performing “unprofessional maneuvers” that crossed the path of Russian bombers and did not communicate with them.
“It was not the first time that South Korean pilots unsuccessfully tried to prevent Russian aircraft from flying over the neutral waters of the Japanese Sea,” the ministry said.
A spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry did not directly address Russia’s accusation of reckless behavior, but said that South Korea never said that the Tu-95 bombers had violated their airspace.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the identification zone for air defence in South Korea was not a territorial airspace and all countries enjoyed freedom of movement in it.
South Korea’s leading security advisor, Chung Eui-yong, raised a strong objection with Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia, and asked the council to assess the incident and take appropriate action, the South Korean presidential office said.
“We take this situation very seriously and, if it repeats itself, we will be even more vigorous,” Chung said, according to the South Korean presidential office.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry has called on the Russian Deputy Head of Mission Maxim Volkov and Chinese Ambassador Qiu Guohong to protest strongly and urged them to prevent a repetition, said Kim In-chul, the ministry’s spokesman.
Separately, Japan filed a complaint with South Korea and Russia about the incident, said Cabinet Minister Yoshihide Suga.
“Given Japan’s attitude to sovereignty over Takeshima, it is totally unacceptable and deeply regrettable that South Korean military aircraft have fired warning shots,” Suga told journalists in Tokyo.
South Korea encrypted F-15 and F-16 fighter planes in response to the intruders.
The South Korean jets fired about 360 rounds of ammunition during the incident, an official of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.
“The South Korean military took tactical measures, including dropping beacons and firing warning shots,” the Department of Defense said.
A South Korean defense attorney told Reuters that the Russian plane did not react in a threatening manner.
The Russian plane left South Korean airspace but re-entered it about 20 minutes later, causing the South Koreans to fire more warning shots.
The ministry said that South Korean fighter planes “performed a normal reaction” to the incursion without giving further details. (Coverage by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith Additional coverage by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Makiko Yamazaki in Tokyo, Cate Cadell in Beijing and Andrew Osborn in Moscow. Edited by Paul Tait and Michael Perry)