TOKYO (AFP) – Japan scrambled two dozen military aircraft and lodged a protest, accusing a Russian strategic bomber of entering its airspace over the Pacific Ocean south of Tokyo Saturday.
Russia denied the incursion, but the Japanese foreign ministry said it lodged a strong protest with the Russian embassy in Tokyo over the incident, which followed stepped up Russian long-range air patrols over the Atlantic.
“We have asked the Russian government to make a thorough investigation into the matter,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.
The Tupolev Tu-95 bomber, which dates to the Soviet era, flew over the rocky isle of Sofugan, 650 kilometres (406 miles) south of Tokyo, for about three minutes from 7:30 am (2230 GMT Friday), the defence ministry said.
The air force scrambled 24 planes, including F-15 fighters and an E-767 radar plane, the defence ministry said.
They gave “a notice, then a warning and another a notice and a warning,” a defence ministry statement said. “There was no response.”
The Russian bomber then flew back north towards the Russian island of Sakhalin, it said.
Moscow said four Tupolev Tu-95 bombers completed a 10-hour mission over the Pacific on Saturday without violating Japanese airspace and that US fighters were also scrambled during the incident.
“Our strategic aviation planes did not violate Japanese airspace,” deputy Russian air force commander Igor Sadofyev told the Russian Interfax news agency.
Alexander Drobyshevsky, a spokesman for the Russian air force, told Russia’s ITAR-TASS agency the flights were carried out “in strict accordance with international rules on flying over neutral waters.”
“The strategic bombers were accompanied by F-15 fighter jets from the Japanese air force and F-18 fighter jets from the US carrier Nimitz,” Drobyshevsky said.
Japan said it was the first Russian violation of its airspace since January 2006.
Russia’s Tupolev design bureau said last October it had begun a “serious modernisation” of the Tu-95 strategic bomber, a workhorse of the Soviet and Russian air forces for over 50 years.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in August the resumption of long-range flights in international air space which were abandoned in 1992 amid financial difficulties that followed the Soviet collapse.
The Tu-95 MS was among the planes included in the patrols, which were seen aimed at another attempt by Putin to boost Russian prestige as his presidential term draws to a close.
In the lead-up to Putin’s announcement, Russian bombers made increasingly frequent flights near US territory. Britain and Norway were scrambled last summer after Tu-95 bombers were spotted close to Norwegian airspace.
Last week, 14 Russian long-range bombers flew over the north Atlantic in the last of a series of military manoeuvres held off Europe’s coasts since December, Russian media reported.
Russia and Japan have had uneasy ties. Last month, Japan also lodged a protest with the Russian embassy after saying that Russian embassy officials wined, dined and gave cash to a Japanese intelligence officer who handed over research information.
Japan and Russia have never signed a peace treaty to formally end World War II due to a dispute over four islands off Japan’s northern coast seized by Soviet troops in 1945.
The Japanese government said Wednesday that Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda hoped to visit Moscow early this year and believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was serious about resolving the island dispute.
Japan, which has been officially pacifist since World War II, is a close US ally and home to more than 40,000 US troops.