Russia says bombers' flyover of US aircraft carrier part of routine patrol

Eds: ADDS US comment, byline.

By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV

Associated Press Writer

MOSCOW (AP) -- The United States and Russia on Tuesday played down a weekend flyover by Russian bombers of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Pacific, with Moscow defending the move as routine and the Americans calling it unprovocative.

Russian air force spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky said in a statement carried by Russian news wires that the Tu-95 bombers didn't violate any rules of engagement when they flew over the Pacific on Saturday.

U.S. military officials said that one Tu-95 buzzed the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz twice, at a low altitude of about 2,000 feet, while another bomber circled about 50 nautical miles out. U.S. fighters were scrambled from Nimitz to intercept the bombers.

Drobyshevsky said the Russian bombers conducted their flight "in strict compliance with the international rules of using airspace over neutral waters and without any violation of other countries' borders." He said the bombers were fulfilling their "assigned task" when they were escorted by the U.S. carrierborne fighters.

Navy Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of U.S. Naval Operations, said Tuesday that he did not consider the flyover a provocative act.

"It was non-provocative in the sense that it was a very predictable flight, early detection, and then we just followed it in," he said.

But he acknowledged that he did not believe the Russians alerted the U.S. in advance. He said the U.S. has not asked for an explanation, nor have the Russians offered one.

Asked what message he thought the Russians were sending, Roughead said, "I think what we are seeing is a Russian military, a Russian navy that is emerging, particularly in the case of the navy, desiring to emerge as a global navy."

Although "it's not prudent to fly over an aircraft carrier," he said, "we knew they were coming. We saw them coming. We detected them at the appropriate time. We launched our alert aircraft, who escorted the Russian aircraft."

Such Russian encounters with U.S. ships were common during the Cold War, but have been rare since then. Russia's President Vladimir Putin revived the Soviet-era practice of long-range patrols by strategic bombers over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans last August.

The Saturday incident came amid heightened tensions between the United States and Russia over U.S. plans for a missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The U.S. has defended the plan as necessary to protect its European allies from possible attacks by Iran. But the Kremlin has condemned the proposal, saying it would threaten Russia's security.

------

Associated Press writer Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.