Russian Bombers Over Iceland?

The Clinton administration on Thursday played down the significance of reports that two Russian bombers violated the airspace of NATO member Iceland last week during a military exercise.

Â"This was a military exercise that -- as far as it goes -- it was not a militarily significant event,Â" White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said.

Â"I don't think there's anyone who believes that these two propeller bombers posed a significant military threat,Â" he added. Â"I don't think there's a high level of concern here about that incident. If they fly over Washington, ask me about it and I'll find out if we're concerned about that.Â"

Air Force officials at the Pentagon had no immediate comment on a Washington Post report today that two long-range Tu-95 Bear bombers entered Iceland's air space last Friday and were intercepted by U.S. Air Force fighters.

In Moscow, the Interfax news agency quoted a Russian Air Force spokesman today as saying the bombers Â"did not cross Iceland's air borderÂ" during a 15-hour training flight.

Russian officials said Monday that four bombers -- the Tu-95s and two Tu-160 Blackjack bombers -- flew over the North Pole and test-fired strategic missiles as part of military exercises code named Â"West 99.Â"

The Tu-160s flew directly north from Moscow, while the two Tu-95s flew over the Atlantic Ocean before heading to the Arctic and crossing the North Pole. Long-range missiles were test-fired and hit targets in southern Russia, officials said.

The training was Â"conducted in the airspace above neutral waters,Â" the Air Force spokesman said. Interfax did not identify him.

The spokesman also played down the Post report that U.S. fighter jets escorted the two Tu-95's around Iceland.

Â"Such trailing of an aircraft in the vicinity of the air border of another country is usual and no excesses occurred in this instance,Â" he said.

The Post quoted U.S. defense officials as saying the military exercise was the largest by Russia in a decade and the first time since the end of the Cold War that Russian planes had probed Western air defenses.

More than 30 ships, several nuclear powered submarines, 10,000 troops and a number of aircraft from Russia's Baltic Fleet also took part in the exercises.

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