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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 September 2005, 16:02 GMT 17:02 UK
Russian jet jangles Baltic nerves
The wreckage of the Russian Su-27 fighter
A technical fault is believed to have caused the crash

The crash of a Russian Su-27 fighter jet in Lithuania has renewed friction between Russia and its Baltic neighbours.

The plane, carrying at least four missiles, veered out of its air corridor and crashed last week, but the pilot ejected and remains in Lithuanian custody.

Baltic newspapers have been asking whether Nato membership really is protecting them, while Russia has demanded the pilot's release.

The jet was flying from St Petersburg to Russia's Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad when it strayed, violating Lithuania's airspace. Russia says a technical fault may be behind the crash.

Where was Nato?

The Lithuanian paper Respublika ran scathing criticism of Nato on Monday, arguing that ageing German F4 Phantoms stationed temporarily in Lithuania as part of Nato's air protection umbrella were inadequate for the task.

Calling Nato's air protection "a public relations gimmick", it said the incident clashed with "our euphoric celebration of our admission to Nato" in 2004.

Lithuania has launched a probe into last Thursday's crash, 190km (120 miles) north-west of Vilnius. It has called for Nato help in examining the black box flight recorder.

Lietuvos Rytas said the crash had prompted "a change of thinking the minds of many Lithuanians".

Russian jets can reach any strategic object in Lithuania in 15 minutes and no one can stop them
Lietuvos Rytas

"Headlines such as 'Our airspace is being protected from intruders by Nato fighter jets' have become 'Nato fighter jets did not protect Lithuania from the Russian jet in time'," it commented.

"Let us try to put the puzzle together: the armed jet remained in Lithuanian airspace for 20 minutes, several times disappearing from the radar.

"During that time Nato jets barely had enough time to take off. Let us add another scary fact. Russian jets can reach any strategic object in Lithuania in 15 minutes and no one can stop them."

'Full of holes'

On the day of the crash, various Russian military planes flying to Kaliningrad through the permitted air corridor off Estonia's coast "switched off transponders transmitting flight information", endangering civil aircraft in the area, the Tallinn BNS news agency reported.

Major Valery Troyanov at airbase before his crash
Maj Valery Troyanov is being held while Lithuania investigates

In Estonia's press, the crash also prompted alarm over Nato planning.

"The Nato umbrella over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania seems to be full of holes. We do not even know what kind of event would have to happen before the Nato eagles would hurry to help us," wrote SL Ohtuleht newspaper.

It said Russian military planes often fly "provocative raids" into Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Finnish airspace, testing response times.

In Latvia, Riga's Neatkariga echoed the Baltic anxiety, adding: "It would be quite dangerous for Nato forces to shoot down a Russian plane over Lithuanian territory, and the international consequences could not be foreseen.

"Nato planes should have at least taken off so that they could monitor the behaviour of Russia's militarists, and so Nato could have taken decisions on the basis of what the Russians were doing. Instead the forces simply sat around at the airport."

Reaction in Russia

For a few days the crash vied with the UN summit for top story in Russia's TV news coverage.

But on Tuesday the Russian defence ministry paper, Krasnaya Zvezda, fumed that the pilot was still being detained and said "this demonstrates yet again that the Lithuanian authorities do not want to live in a trusting and good-neighbourly atmosphere with Russia."

Komsomolskaya Pravda also called for the pilot's release, but said Moscow's approach should be cautious - "not by threats, blackmail and complaints by noisy MPs, but by the endeavours of our wise lawyers and diplomats."

Gazeta urged Moscow to admit the airspace violation and help improve relations. The daily said Russia had promised to compensate the Lithuanians for the crash, and the other side's response was "conciliatory".

But Russian NTV Mir could not resist taking aim at Nato's air defence system. It said the radar screens at Nato's nearest base must have been unmanned, or their operators asleep.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaus abroad.

Country profile: Lithuania
20 Jul 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Russia
20 Jul 05 |  Country profiles

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