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Lithuanian, Spanish Leaders Interrupted by Jets Scrambling to Intercept Russian Planes

Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda, right, and Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez answers questions during a meeting with the press at Siauliai air force base, some 220 kms east of the capital Vilnius, Lithuania, July 8, 2021.

A news conference with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at a NATO airbase in Lithuania was interrupted Thursday when fighter jets were scrambled to intercept two Russian jets.

The two leaders were three minutes into a news conference, televised live from the Siauliai airbase in northern Lithuanian, when flight crews responded to an alarm and scrambled their jets. The leaders and the media were led away.

Military officials later confirmed the Spanish jets, based in Lithuania on a NATO mission to police Baltic airspace, were activated after reports two Russian Su-24 combat jets had taken off from Russia's Kaliningrad region without filing flight plans, without their transponders on, and without responding to regional air traffic control.

After the Spanish jets took off, the news conference resumed. Spanish Prime Minister Sanchez told reporters, "We have seen a real-life case of what happens and precisely it justifies the presence of Spanish troops with the seven Eurofighters in Lithuania."

Seven Spanish Eurofighter jets have been based at the Siauliai airbase since April 30 for the Baltic air-policing mission, which also includes four Italian F-35 aircraft at Estonia's Amari airbase.

The three Baltic nations - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - joined NATO in 2004 and have no fighter jets of their own. NATO has the responsibility of policing their airspace on a rotational four-month basis from the Siauliai base and in Amari, Estonia.

In a statement, the Russian Defense Ministry said the two Su-24 bombers were flying a regular training mission Thursday over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea. The statement claimed the flight was performed in strict accordance with international rules of using airspace and without violation of any country’s borders.

Sánchez was visiting Lithuania as part of a three-day trip to the Baltic region, and he earlier met with officials in Estonia and Latvia.