TORONTO — Fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a Russian bomber in the Arctic as it approached Canadian airspace on the eve of President Barack Obama's visit to Ottawa last week, Canada's defense minister said Friday.
Peter MacKay said the bomber never entered Canadian airspace. But he said two Canadian CF-18 jets met the bomber in international airspace and sent a "strong signal that they should back off."
"They met a Russian aircraft that was approaching Canadian airspace, and as they have done in previous occasions they sent very clear signals that are understood, that the aircraft was to turnaround, turn tail, and head back to their airspace, which it did," MacKay said.
"I'm not going to stand here and accuse the Russians of having deliberately done this during the presidential visit, but it was a strong coincidence," he said of the Feb. 18 incident.
Obama arrived in Ottawa the next day and Canadian security services were focused on his arrival. But the Arctic incident did not stretch Canada's resources, he said.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky said in a statement Friday that the plane never encroached on Canadian airspace and that Canada had been told about the flight beforehand.
"The statements by Canada's defense minister about flights of our aircraft are absolutely incomprehensible. They are nothing but farce," Drobyshevsky said.
Soviet aircraft regularly flew near North American airspace during the Cold War but stopped after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Several years ago, Russian jets resumed these types of flights, according to U.S. and Canadian authorities
MacKay said Russia gives no warning prior to the flights, despite Canada's request for Russia to do so.
"They simply show up on a radar screen," MacKay said. "This is not a game at all.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it is a real concern for Canada.
"I've expressed at various times the deep concern our government has with increasingly aggressive Russian actions around the globe and Russian intrusions into our airspace," Harper said.
"This government has responded every time the Russians have done that. We will continue to respond. We will defend our airspace."
Mackay linked the Russian flights to the competition between Canada, Russia, the U.S. and other countries to secure Arctic resources. With polar ice melting there are new opportunities to exploit the region's oil, gas and mineral reserves.
Canada has said it plans to build a new army training center in the region and a deep-water port the Arctic.
"This has been a major priority of our government," MacKay said. "We know that the waters are opening up. We know that other countries have expressed interest in the Arctic."
Associated Press Writer Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow contributed to this report.