TALLINN - In what has become an almost regular event, a Russian military An-26 aircraft violated Estonian air space near Vaindloo Island in the Gulf of Finland on April 23, military spokespeople said.
The incident, which reportedly occurred at 1:49 p.m., has forced several Estonian leaders to conclude that the reoccurring violations are a deliberate attempt by Russia to irk the tiny Baltic state.
The Russian General Staff denied the violation. "Russian military aircraft did not violate Estonia's air space. There were two scheduled Antonov An-26 flights on Saturday, but both planes strictly observed their flight paths," Russian Air Force Col. Alexander Drobyshevsky told Interfax news agency.
The aircraft, en route to Russia's Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, entered Estonian airspace by more than one nautical mile and spent less than a minute in the territory, a spokesperson from Estonian General Staff said.
The Baltic state's Air Sovereignty Center at Amari registered the violation, yet the aircraft didn't respond to the navigation center's attempt at establishing radio contact.
Russian military officials were unmoved by the evidence. "The flights were rigorously and objectively monitored. We are prepared to provide flight control data to Estonia," Drobyshevsky was quoted as saying.
The alleged violation marked the fourth time that a Russian aircraft has broken air-space laws since November last year, although this was the first such incident in 2005.
Marko Mihkelson, who until last week headed Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said the repeated violations do not arise out of negligence but are attempts to play on Estonia's nerves.
"Just as for us, these borders are known to Russia too. And with contemporary navigation equipment it's absolutely unthinkable that these entries are accidental acts of negligence," the Res Publica MP said in an article published in the SL Ohtuleht daily. (Mihkelson was ousted from his post as chairman in connection with the recent coalition changes.)
The last violation occurred Dec. 3, 2004 when a Russian An-26 broke through the country's air zone at approximately the same location near Vaindloo Island. Prior to that a Russian Tupolev Tu-154 entered Estonia's airspace between the islands of Naissaar and Osmussaar near Tallinn on Nov. 24.
On Nov. 19, a Russian An-72 and An-26 broke the same law consecutively near Vaindloo Island.
Mihkelson said that Estonia's position on the subject was unambiguous, regardless whether the violation lasts half a minute or longer: an breach of air space is not acceptable.
In such cases it is most appropriate to act as the country has been 's to inform both the public and Russia quickly, the lawmaker said.
He also said that Russia's 20-minute violation in October 2003 played a substantial role in several NATO members' decision to contribute fighter jets and air teams to the Baltic air-policing mission. "In Denmark's case, for instance, this definitely played a very important role," he added.
Georgi Kokoshinski, the acting chief for Estonian General Staff's press department, said the application of procedures necessary for national air-space security had been referred to a NATO flight control center in Germany.