April 25, 2014 9:44 pm

U.S. defence officials say Russian jets crossed into Ukraine airspace

A Ukrainian police officer stands guard at a checkpoint, with Ukrainian flags, that was attacked by unknown men outside the Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine, Friday, April 25, 2014.

(AP Photo/Sergei Poliakov)

WASHINGTON – U.S. defence officials said Friday that Russian fighter jets flew into Ukrainian airspace a handful of times over the last 24 hours, in what one called a continued provocation of the heightened tensions in the region.

The officials said it’s not clear what the intent was, but the aircraft could have been testing Ukrainian radar or making a show of force.

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Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed the flights, adding that the U.S. is calling on the Russians “to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation.”

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The flights come as Russia increases military exercises along the Ukraine border, including moving a broad array of fixed wing and rotary aircraft, infantry and armoured troops. The exercises inflame worries about a potential Russian military incursion into Ukraine.

The West has threatened additional sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean region in March and the ongoing escalation of military operations along the border.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, on Thursday and to express “grave concern” over Russia’s aggressive military behaviour, the Pentagon said in a statement. “The two military leaders agreed on the need to reduce tension, avoid miscalculation and keep an open line of communication,” according to the statement.

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Warren said U.S. officials have let Russian defence ministry officials know that Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel would like to speak to his counterpart, Russia Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. There has been no response yet, Warren said.

This is the second set of military exercises conducted by the Russians along the border region. The latest exercises were quickly denounced by Hagel, who called them “dangerously destabilizing” and “very provocative.” If such activities escalate, they will make it more difficult to find a diplomatic solution to the situation in Ukraine, Hagel said, speaking in Mexico City.

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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