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FILE PHOTO: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visits Hmeymim air base in Syria, June 18, 2016. Picture taken June 18, 2016. REUTERS/Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry via Reuters(reuters_tickers)
By Andrew Osborn and Robin Emmott
MOSCOW/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A NATO F-16 fighter jet buzzed a plane carrying Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as it flew over the Baltic Sea, but was seen off by a Russian Sukhoi-27 military jet, Russia said on Wednesday, an account partly disputed by NATO.
The Baltic Sea has become an area of rising tensions between Moscow and the Western military alliance. Earlier this month, Russia scrambled a fighter jet to intercept a nuclear-capable U.S. B-52 strategic bomber it said was flying over the Baltic, in an incident that had echoes of the Cold War.
A video of Wednesday's incident broadcast on a TV channel run by the Russian Ministry of Defence showed an F-16 flying parallel with the minister's plane at a short distance. It was not clear which air force the F-16 belonged to.
A Russian Sukhoi-27 fighter jet was then seen inserting itself between the F-16 and the minister's plane before tilting its wings from side to side to show the missiles it is carrying. The F-16 was then seen leaving the area.
NATO said it had tracked three Russian aircraft over the Baltic on Wednesday, including two fighter jets which it said did not respond to air traffic control or requests to identify themselves.
"As is standard practice whenever unknown aircraft approach NATO air space, NATO and national air forces took to the sky to monitor these flights," a NATO official said.
"When NATO aircraft intercept a plane they identify it visually, maintaining a safe distance at all times. Once complete, NATO jets break away," the official said.
The alliance said it had no information about who was on board the planes.
Shoigu's plane had been en route to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad for a meeting to discuss how well Russia's western flank was defended. Footage of what happened was filmed by someone on Shoigu's plane.
The RIA news agency reported that NATO aircraft had also tracked Shoigu's plane when he returned after his meeting later on Wednesday, albeit at a greater distance.
The Kremlin referred questions about the incident to the defence ministry, which did not immediately comment. It has said in the past that all Russian flights over the Baltic are conducted in strict accordance with international law.
Russian politicians called the episode the latest in a string of "provocations," a day after the Russian defence ministry said an RC-135 U.S. reconnaissance plane had swerved dangerously near a Russian fighter jet over the Baltic and that another RC-135 had been intercepted.
The Pentagon disputed that, saying the U.S. aircraft "did nothing to provoke this behaviour" and that the Russian intercept had been unsafe.
In another episode, Sweden said on Wednesday it had called in Russia's ambassador for talks after a Russian fighter jet buzzed a Swedish military jet on an electronic intelligence gathering mission over the Baltic on Monday.
"The Russian plane's actions were out of the ordinary ... in terms of the distance between the planes which was at certain times very small," the Swedish military said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Maria Kielyova in Moscow, Johan Sennero and Niklas Pollard in Stockholm, and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Alexander Winning)