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International relations

U.S. Reaper drone crashes into Black Sea after Russian intercept

Moscow's ambassador being summoned, State Department says

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone sits in a hangar at Amari Air Base, Estonia, in this file photo taken on July 1, 2020. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A U.S military MQ-9 surveillance drone crashed into the Black Sea on Tuesday after being intercepted by Russian fighter jets, in the first such incident since Russia's invasion of Ukraine over a year ago.

The Pentagon said that one of the Russian Su-27 jets struck the propeller of the drone, making it inoperable, while Russia's Defense Ministry blamed "sharp maneuvering" of the unmanned drone for the crash and said that its jets did not come into contact with it.

NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, briefed NATO allies about the incident, which was roundly condemned by the White House and the Pentagon -- which warned of the risk of escalation. The State Department said it was summoning Russia's ambassador over the incident.

Two Russian Su-27 jets carried out what the U.S. military described as a reckless intercept of the American spy drone before one of them collided with it at 7:03 a.m. (0603 GMT).

Several times before the collision, the Russian fighter jets dumped fuel on the MQ-9 -- possibly trying to blind or damage it -- and flew in front of the unmanned drone in unsafe maneuvers, the U.S. military said.

"Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9," U.S. Air Force Gen. James Hecker, who oversees the U.S. Air Force in the region, said in a statement.

"In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash."

Russia's Defense Ministry said the U.S. drone went into the water as a result of "sharp maneuvering" by it.

"The Russian fighters did not use their onboard weapons, did not come into contact with the UAV, and returned safely to their home airfield," the ministry said.

While the U.S. is not sailing warships in the Black Sea, it has routinely been flying surveillance aircraft in and around the area.

The U.S. military said the incident followed a pattern of dangerous behavior by Russian pilots operating near aircraft flown by the U.S. and its allies, including over the Black Sea, which lies between Europe and Asia and is bordered by countries including Russia and Ukraine.

The White House said the drone's downing was unique, however, and would be raised directly by the State Department with their Russian counterparts.

"We have been flying over that airspace consistently now for a year ... and we're going to continue to do that," said White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.

"We don't need to have some sort of check-in with the Russians before we fly in international airspace. There's no requirement to do that nor do we do it," Kirby added.

The U.S. will on Tuesday afternoon summon Russia's ambassador to Washington over the incident, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

The U.S. ambassador to Moscow has conveyed a strong message to Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry, Price told reporters.

The MQ-9 "Reaper" drone, which is built by General Atomics, has a wingspan of around 20 meters and is about 11 meters long. The drone weighs approximately 2,220 kg when it is empty.

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