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Lithuania Refuses to Hand Over Pilot

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- The Lithuanian government has denied Moscow's requests to hand over a Russian pilot whose fighter jet crashed in the NATO member's territory after violating its airspace, saying it must first complete an investigation.

Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas said NATO investigators also would study the Su-27 fighter's flight recorder, or black box, to determine the cause of the crash.

"We will not hand the pilot and the black box of the crashed plane over to Moscow until the investigation is completed," Kirkilas said Friday.

The plane, which had been en route from St. Petersburg to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, crashed near the village of Ploksciai, 190 kilometers northwest of Vilnius, on Thursday.

The pilot, Major Valery Troyanov, ejected to safety and was not hurt, officials said.

After questioning Troyanov for six hours, prosecutor Mindaugas Duda said the pilot was no longer a witness but a suspect, and that they had opened a case against him on suspicion of "violating international flight regulations." He did not say why Troyanov's status had been changed.

If charged and convicted, Troyanov, 36, could face up to two years in prison.

Troyanov's jet flew in a convoy with other Russian aircraft that had been given permission to fly through an agreed upon "corridor" over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Lithuanian officials said. The other aircraft reached Kaliningrad safely.

Troyanov was examined overnight in an undisclosed hospital before being taken to Vilnius on Friday for questioning.

On Thursday, Moscow requested that Troyanov and the plane's flight data recorder be handed over to Russian officials.

Major General Valdas Tutkus, commander of Lithuania's armed forces, said he believed the pilot did not intentionally violate Lithuanian airspace and that the crash was likely caused by a technical problem.

"We knew its precise route and did not feel it posed any threat," Tutkus told the Baltic News Agency.

He said Troyanov sent an SOS signal before crashing that was also picked up by Air Force traffic controllers in neighboring Belarus, who contacted Lithuanian officials on a special hot line.

The Interior Ministry said it would issue visitors' visas to Troyanov and a Russian delegation that planned to visit the crash site.

Kirkilas said Lithuania lacked experts who could examine the black box and would turn to its NATO allies for help.

The alliance, which has four F-4 fighters stationed at an air base in Lithuania, scrambled two of its fighters to intercept the Russian plane.

Major Karl Heinz Smuda, a spokesman for the German NATO contingent currently policing Baltic skies, praised the response time.

"According to regulations, we have 15 minutes to fly to the conflict zone," Smuda said. "Our pilots did it in eight minutes, and we are proud of it. When they arrived, the Russian pilot had already ejected and the fighter was nose-diving to the ground."

The Russian Defense Ministry apologized for the crash and promised to pay for any damage it caused.

On Saturday, Lieutenant General Sergei Baynetov, head of the air safety service of the Russian Defense Ministry, said the Su-27 had been carrying four air-to-air missiles, Interfax reported.

At the time of the crash, the Defense Ministry had said the jet had no weapons aboard.

The incident was the latest in a series of recent airspace violations by Russian planes in the region. In May, Finland complained that Russian military aircraft had repeatedly violated its airspace over a period of several months. The violations took place in Finnish airspace over the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea as the jets flew to and from Kaliningrad.

Similar alleged violations by Russian planes have been reported in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

(The Moscow Times 19.ix.05)

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