The United States has said a Russian fighter jet struck an American drone with a flare over Syria at the weekend, with Washington again accusing Moscow of “unprofessional behaviour” in the skies above the country.
In a statement on Tuesday, US Air Forces Central said a Russian aircraft “flew dangerously close” to a US MQ-9 drone in the early hours of Sunday, “harassing” the drone and “deploying flares from a position overhead”.
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“One of the Russian flares struck the US MQ-9, severely damaging its propeller. Fortunately, the MQ-9 crew was able to maintain flight and safely recover the aircraft to its home base,” Lieutenant General Alex Grynkewich, the head of US Air Forces Central, said.
“We call upon the Russian forces in Syria to put an immediate end to this reckless, unprovoked, and unprofessional behavior.”
The incident is the latest in a series of encounters between Russian fighter jets and US drones over Syria.
On July 6, the US Air Force released a video of one such encounter, showing a Russian SU-35 fighter closing in on an American drone.
The footage showed the Russian pilot positioning his aircraft in front of the MQ-9 Reaper and turning on the afterburner, dramatically increasing speed and air pressure and making it harder to operate the drone, the Air Force said in comments accompanying the video.
Citing unidentified US officials, The Associated Press news agency also reported last week that a Russian jet flew dangerously close to a US surveillance aircraft over Syria on July 16, “putting the lives of the four American crew members in danger”.
Tensions between the US and Russia have escalated since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of last year.
In March, a diplomatic dispute also briefly broke out when the US claimed that Russian jets were responsible for the downing of a Reaper drone, valued at more than $30m and packed with sensitive US spying technology, operating over the Black Sea.
Moscow denied its warplanes were responsible for the crash but video footage released by the US military showed that the Russian planes engaged in manoeuvres to hamper the drone’s flight path.
In Tuesday’s statement, US Air Force Central said the American drone hit by a Russian flare was “on a defeat-ISIS mission”, referring to the ISIL (ISIS) armed group that previously controlled vast swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.
About 900 US forces are deployed to Syria to work with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIL. Russia is the main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.