Russian warships in English Channel due to 'bad weather'

PARIS (AFP) - French authorities and Nato confirmed the presence of four Russian wa rships in the English Channel on Friday, but denied they were doing military exercises and said they were taking shelter due to bad weather.

Officials quickly sought to ease fears over the presence of the flotilla after Russian media reported they were planning military exercises, with East-West tensions sky-high over Russia's intervention in ex-Soviet Ukraine.

The passage through the Channel came just weeks after a series of flights by large formations of Russian warplanes in European airspace, intercepted by Nato which has described Russia's attitude as increasingly "provocative".

However, a French navy spokesman said the passage of warships led by a large submarine-hunting ship was "nothing unusual. It is merely a matter of boats in transit. Weather conditions are not good in the area."

Authorities on both sides of the Channel told AFP that such Russian naval detachments visit the region on a regular basis and that they usually do not extend their stay beyond a few days.

"The ships were escorted by the Royal Navy warship HMS Tyne as part of her UK maritime security role and have now left UK waters," said a spokesman for Britain's Ministry of Defence.

Christiane Wirtz, a spokeswoman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told journalists that the transit of the Russian ships "even in international waters, is not really a sign of de-escalation."

A Nato spokesman insisted the ships were not carrying out exercises "in the Channel, as some Russian headlines would have us believe."

"Our information indicates that the ships are transiting and have been delayed by weather conditions," Nato spokesman Jay Janzen told AFP.

Russia's Northern Fleet said in a statement released to the RIA Novosti government news agency that its four vessels were led by the Severomorsk destroyer and the Alexander Otrakovsky amphibious landing ship.

It said the detachment had passed through the narrowest part of the channel between England and France at Pas-de-Calais and would begin a series of planned manoeuvres shortly.

The quoted statement said a storm had forced the detachment to take temporary shelter at the Bay of the River Seine off the northwestern coast of France.

"During its stay, the ships' crew will perform a series of manoeuvres aimed at combating underwater vessels and technology," the news agency quoted the Russian statement as saying.

Alexis Edme, a spokesman for maritime authorities in northern France, said that while the presence of the ships was not for an official military exercise, "that doesn't mean they aren't doing fire drills or something else," adding these were par for the course on a warship.

He said their presence was "far from new. It happens several times a year. The Channel is a passage, they are coming from the north. It would be hard for them to do anything but pass through there."