A Russian fighter jet flew within a few metres of a US drone over Syria and fired flares at it, striking the American aircraft and damaging it, the US military said Tuesday.
A senior Air Force commander said the move on Sunday was an attempt by the Russians to knock the MQ-9 Reaper drone out of the sky and came just a week after a Russian fighter jet flew dangerously close to a US surveillance aircraft carrying a crew in the region, jeopardising the lives of the four American crew members.
One of the Russian flares struck the US MQ-9, severely damaging its propeller, Lt Gen Alex Grynkewich, the head of US Air Forces Central, said in a statement describing the latest close call. "We call upon the Russian forces in Syria to put an immediate end to this reckless, unprovoked, and unprofessional behaviour.”
Grynkewich said one of the crew members operating the drone remotely kept it in the air and flew it back to its home base.
The Sunday incident is the latest in a series of encounters between Russian fighter jets and US aircraft flying over Syria. In all but one instance a week ago, the US aircraft were MQ-9 drones without crew members. On that Sunday, however, the Russian Su-35 jet flew close to a US MC-12 surveillance aircraft with a crew, forcing it to go through the turbulent wake.
US officials at the time called it a significant escalation in the ongoing string of encounters between US and Russian aircraft that could have resulted in an accident or loss of life. They said the Russian move hampered the crew members' ability to safely operate their plane.
In recent weeks, US officials said, Russian fighter jets have repeatedly harassed US MQ-9 drones, which are conducting anti-Islamic State group missions, largely in western Syria.
On multiple occasions in the past three weeks, the officials said, Russian fighter jets flew dangerously close to the US Reapers, setting off flares and forcing the drones to take evasive manoeuvres. US and Russian military officers communicate frequently over a deconfliction phone line during the encounters, protesting the other side's actions.
There are about 900 US forces in Syria, and others move in and out to conduct missions targeting Islamic State group militants.