Britain scrambles jets as Russian planes and ships spotted

LONDON (AFP) - British fighter jets were scrambled on Wednesday in response to the sighting of two Russian military aircraft near UK airspace, hours after three Russian ships were monitored as they entered the English Channel.

"Quick Reaction Alert Typhoon fighter aircraft were launched today after Russian aircraft were identified flying close to UK airspace," said a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesman.

The planes were launched from the Lossiemouth military airbase in northern Scotland.

Britain's Royal Navy earlier kept track of three Russian ships, including a destroyer, after they entered the English Channel, according to the defence ministry.

It is the latest in a string of similar incidents and comes at a time of tense relations between London and Moscow over the crisis in Ukraine and the inquiry into the death of Russian former spy Alexander Litvinenko.

"MoD can confirm 3 Russian ships being monitored by @RoyalNavy HMS Argyll through Channel. No exercises seen," the ministry said on its Twitter feed.

"Russian Udaloy class destroyer Severomorsk returning from Mediterranean with tanker and support ship. Due to leave Channel later."

Russia's defence ministry said the ships were en route to the North Atlantic, where they would be taking part in exercises "on anti-air and anti-submarine defence".

The Channel is used frequently and legitimately as a route by Russian warships but Nato countries are on alert over fears that Moscow could attempt to destabilise countries on Europe's eastern flank that were in its orbit during Soviet times.

James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at think-tank Chatham House, said Russia's actions around the UK were designed to send a message.

"Russia is trying to show it has got full spectrum capability warfare," he said.

"It is not a prelude to war but it is a reminder that Russia likes to remind us of - that it is a power to be reckoned with, not a fading power, which might be closer to the reality.

The Severomorsk, an anti-submarine destroyer, was among four ships which passed through the Channel in November.

A Russian warship was also tracked through the Channel in February while the previous month, Britain summoned the Russian ambassador after Tupolev Tu-95 bombers, known as Russian "bears", were found flying close to British airspace.

According to a report in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, Britain was forced to accept a four-day visit by Russian military inspectors to view UK-led naval war games off the coast of Scotland.

The exercises, which began on Monday, are taking place under the terms of a European arms control treaty.

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