Sweden says Russian military jet in near collision with passenger plane

By Johan Ahlander STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A Russian military jet nearly collided with a commercial passenger airplane in international airspace near southern Sweden on Friday, Swedish authorities said, but Russia insisted its jet had kept at a safe distance. Passenger flight SK1755, operated by a unit of Scandinavian airline service SAS from the Danish capital Copenhagen to Poznan in Poland, was diverted by Swedish authorities before a collision occurred, the authorities said. But Russia's Defence Ministry on Sunday denied its plane had come close to colliding with a civilian airliner, official news agency TASS reported. "A flight was carried out in strict accordance with international rules on air space and did not violate the borders of other countries and was at a safe distance from the flight paths of civilian airplanes," Defence Ministry spokesman General Major Igor Konashenko was quoted as saying. SAS also played down reports of a near collision, saying the two aircraft were at a safe distance from each other. Relations between Russia and the West have soured in recent months over Moscow's role in the conflict in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. Many European countries have cited suspected displays of Russian military prowess. A squadron of Russian warships entered the English Channel last month and Sweden said it had proof a foreign submarine was operating illegally in its waters in October. Britain also launched a submarine search, helped by NATO allies. NO DANGER Earlier this month NATO complained Russian military aircraft were posing a threat to civilian planes by turning off communications devices and failing to file flight plans. NATO warplanes have had to scramble 400 times this year in response to increased Russian air activity around Europe. SAS, however, played down the latest incident. "In this particular case, no security perimeter has been broken," Knut Morten Johansen, Norwegian Communications Manager at SAS, told Swedish news agency TT. "It is therefore important by SAS to say that no one has been in danger, both the pilot and traffic management have had control of the situation." Johansen said SAS did not know exactly how far apart the two planes were but that they were never closer than 3,000 feet, or just over 900 meters. Swedish military had said the Russian jet was flying with its transponder (a communications device which makes it easier for an airplane to be located) switched off. "The military aircraft had no transponder but we discovered it on our radar and warned the civilian air traffic control in Malmo," Daniel Josefsson of the Swedish battle command center was quoted saying in daily Dagens Nyheter on Saturday. Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist told Swedish radio: "This is serious. This is inappropriate ... It's outright dangerous when you turn off the transponder." (Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Moscow; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and David Holmes)