Two U.S. warplanes in Syria were forced to divert from supporting ground operations against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) on Thursday to intercept Russian jets that crossed into U.S. coalition airspace.
The U.S. F-22 stealth fighters even fired warning flares at the Russian Su-25 close-air support jets. During the incident, one of the U.S. warplanes also was forced to perform a risky maneuver to avoid a mid-air collision with one of the Su-25s. The dangerous standoff reportedly lasted around 40 minutes and concluded after one of the F-22s shadowed one of the Russian planes.
The Russian jets "were promptly intercepted by two F-22A Raptors providing air cover for partner ground forces conducting operations to defeat ISIS," according to what Air Forces Central Command spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart told CNN.
"The F-22s conducted multiple maneuvers to persuade the Su-25s to depart our de-conflicted airspace, including the release of chaff and flares in close proximity to the Russian aircraft and placing multiple calls on the emergency channel to convey to the Russian pilots that they needed to depart the area," Pickart added.
In November, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a clear deconfliction line along the Euphrates River. The agreement stipulated Russia would not fly east of the river, while the U.S. agreed not to fly west. But the Russians have reportedly flown into U.S.-controlled airspace six to eight times per day, increasing the risk of incidents like the interception of the Su-25s on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Russia's Ministry of Defense denies its planes flew east of the Euphrates River and claimed the American media employed "wishful thinking" about the incident, though it's not immediately clear exactly what that meant.
Thursday's incident comes after a surprise visit to a Russian airbase in Syria from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, during which he announced a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the country. But he also said Russia would maintain a presence in Syria and promised airstrikes "if terrorists raise their head again," seemingly referring to the forces who attempted to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
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