Swiss fighter check on jet inflames Russian-French tensions

By Christian Lowe, John Miller and Marine Pennetier MOSCOW/ZURICH/PARIS (Reuters) - Switzerland's military said one of its fighter jets performed a routine identification check on a Russian plane in Swiss air space on Monday, prompting Moscow to complain the aircraft came "dangerously" close to each other. Russia initially summoned the French ambassador in Moscow to protest, alleging a French military jet had come into "dangerous proximity" with the Tupolev, whose passengers included the Speaker of its lower house en route to Geneva. Moscow, which had threatened not to use France as a venue for international meetings in retaliation, later apologized for the mistake. A Swiss Department of Defense spokesman on Monday evening confirmed the fighter was a Swiss F/A 18 jet that had been sent to verify the identity of the Russian plane with diplomatic clearance. Spokesman Peter Minder said the Swiss jet flew close enough to make visual contact with the Russian pilot, but there was no danger of a collision. "It's standard procedure," Minder said, adding the Swiss military performs such "live missions ... a hundred times a year" to confirm that aircraft entering Switzerland's air space have appropriate clearance. "It's just a matter of identification," he said. Contact with the Russian pilot was made around 08:22 GMT (04: 22 EDT) and the plane's identity was confirmed, Minder said, at which point the Swiss fighter returned to its base. The Russian plane landed in Geneva as planned. France was quick to deny involvement. "No French army aircraft was involved in the incident with the official Russian aircraft that the Russian Foreign Ministry mentioned," France's defense and foreign ministries said in a joint statement. "We regret therefore that the French ambassador to Moscow was summoned on the spot." The Russian Speaker, Sergei Naryshkin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin was heading to Geneva for an international meeting of parliamentarians. Geneva's airport is very close to Switzerland's border with France, which may have led to confusion about whose airspace Naryshkin's aircraft was in and the jet's nationality. There has been an uptick in the number of near-miss type incidents involving NATO and Russian military aircraft since separatist conflict, which the West accuses Russia of stoking, broke out in Ukraine. Earlier this month, Putin traveled to Paris for talks on Ukraine with French President Francois Hollander and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. NATO member states have accused Russian military jets in particular of flying dangerously close to Western military and civilian aircraft on numerous occasions. Moscow has denied breaking any aviation rules. (Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Jack Stubbs in MOSCOW, Ingrid Melander in PARIS, Geneva bureau; Writing by Christian Lowe and John Miller; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)