RAF INTERCEPT RUSSIAN BOMBERS
RAF fighter jets race to head off Russian nuclear bombers as tensions rise
RAF fighter jets were dramatically scrambled to intercept two Russian bombers heading for British airspace yesterday - as the crisis between the countries escalated.
Two Tornado fighters raced to meet the Tupolev Tu95 bombers which had been dispatched from their base on the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic Circle.
The incident, described as rare by the RAF but once commonplace during the Cold War, was seen as a show of defiance by Russia.
But the country's air force commander said the two long-range nuclear bombers, the equivalent of America's B-52, were on a training flight unconnected with the heightened tensions.
Colonel General Alexander Zelin said: "Our planes were flying planned flights over neutral waters." Any suggestion they were linked to the diplomatic row was "sheer nonsense", he added.
An RAF spokesman said the bombers, now used for surveillance, were shadowed by two Royal Norwegian Air Force F18s until the British fighters from RAF Leeming in North Yorks closed in.
He added: "The Russians turned back before they reached British airspace."
The incident follows the row between Britain and Russia over the extradition of ex-KGB man Andrei Lugovoi, the chief suspect in the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London last year.
And it comes amid revelations that police in London arrested a suspected Russian hitman who was planning to murder tycoon Boris Berezovsky.
On Monday, Britain expelled four Russian diplomats following the Kremlin's refusal to hand over Lugovoi. It is thought yesterday's incident may have been an attempt by Russia to raise the stakes while it considers its response.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the West regularly played cat and mouse over each other's airspace.
In the worst incident seven British airmen were killed when an RAF jet on a training exercise was shot down over Berlin in March 1953.
Later that year the Russian airforce tried to destroy an RAF Canberra which was about to photograph a missile test site.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday tightened his grip on Kremlin policymaking by appointing a KGB veteran, Valentin Sobolev, 60, as acting secretary of the Security Council.
The council, which includes Russia's most powerful ministers, intelligence officials and generals, plays a key role in foreign policy, dealing with delicate negotiations such as Iran's nuclear programme. Igor Ivanov, a former foreign minister, resigned from the post unexpectedly this month after serving as secretary since 2004.
The reason for his resignation was not given.