November 3, 2015 / 7:53 PM / 4 years ago

U.S., Russia aircraft test safety protocols in skies over Syria

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) - A U.S. fighter jet and a Russian fighter jet flew within 5 miles (8 km) of each other in the skies over Syria on Tuesday, in a planned test of new safety protocols aimed at avoiding an accidental clash between the former Cold War foes.

The United States, which opposes Russia’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has sharply criticised Russia’s more than month-long campaign of air strikes and has ruled out any military coordination with Moscow.

But the U.S. and Russian militaries did agree last month to safety protocols, including how to communicate with each other during a close encounter in the air.

The Pentagon said Tuesday’s test of that provision lasted around 3 minutes and took place in the skies of south central Syria.

A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aircraft came within 5 miles of each other.

Russia described it as a joint military exercise. But, in a sign of the sensitivities, the Pentagon said calling it a military “exercise” was incorrect and that it was only a test.

“This test was a prudent measure solely to ensure that, in the event coalition aircraft encounter a Russian aircraft during operations in Syria, one of the established and agreed upon modes of communication in the agreement functioned,” said Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis.

Andrei Kartapolov from the Russian army’s General Staff said in a statement it entailed Russian and coalition jets practising close encounters in a special zone. Crews practiced communicating in English and Russian, he added.

The United States has been bombing Islamic State militants in Syria for more than a year and accuses Russia of focusing its air strikes on Assad’s opponents, some of whom are backed by the West. Russia says it too wants to target Islamic State.

Before striking the agreement on air safety protocols, the United States repeatedly accused Russian aircraft of coming within miles of American drones and piloted U.S. fighter jets, stoking concerns about an accidental clash.

The United States announced a decision last week to further deepen its military role in Syria, including intensifying its air campaign and deploying a small number of U.S. special operations forces on the ground for the first time.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said on Friday the U.S. decision would make cooperation between both countries’ militaries more important.

Reporting by Polina Devitt and Phil Stewart; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry

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