WASHINGTON (AFP) — A US Navy surveillance jet lost its way during a counter-drug mission and strayed into Venezuelan airspace, US officials said Monday following a vehement Venezuelan protest.
Venezuelan Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel called the overflight "a deliberate action" and "another link in a chain of provocations."
Rangel said the Venezuelan air defense system tracked the S-3 Viking over the Venezuelan island of La Orchila on Saturday at 8:40 pm (0010 GMT Sunday).
The island is a military base and a presidential retreat that lies in the Caribbean just north of the Venezuelan mainland.
The United States, responding hours later, portrayed the incident as an inadvertent incursion into Venezuelan airspace.
"A US S-3 aircraft conducting counter-drugs operations lost navigational situational awareness causing it to fly into Venezuelan airspace off the mainland coast," the Joint Interagency Task Force South said in a statement.
The aircraft was assigned to the military-led task force, which directs US counter-drug operations in the Caribbean from its headquarters in Key West, Florida.
Commander Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said the S-3 aircrew was queried by Venezuelan air traffic control at Maiquetia after experiencing "intermittent navigational problems" while on a mission originating in Curacao.
The US Air Force operates a base for US counter-drug operations in Curacao, one of the Netherlands Antilles near Venezuela.
"Our crew promptly responded with information including the fact that they were a US Navy aircraft, gave their call sign, that they were flying in international airspace on a mission originating in Curacao, and that a navigational error had occurred," Gordon said.
He said a language barrier apparently delayed the initial conversation between the US crew and the Venezuelans, but the exchange lasted about three minutes.
"The conversation was polite and professional," he said.
S-3 Vikings were originally designed as an anti-submarine warfare aircraft, but are now used mostly for maritime surveillance and as an air refueling plane.
However, some have been modified for electronic warfare and intelligence gathering.
The Venezuelan defense minister said the S-3 "practically flew over" two Venezuelan islands before turning back and heading towards the Netherlands Antilles, small islands just off Venezuela's northern coast.
"We ordered the airplane to identify itself," Rangel said at a press conference in Caracas. "We have recorded proof of the conversation between ground control in Venezuela and the aircraft pilot."
"He said he was not aware that he was over Venezuelan territory," said Rangel, adding, "This was a deliberate action. It is another link in the chain of provocations."
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro described the incident as an "illegal overflight."
"We are first going to listen to the explanations from the United States, and starting from there will take the necessary actions so this does not happen again," Maduro said.
The incident comes amid tensions between Venezuela and the United States and its ally Colombia, which borders Venezuela.
Interpol confirmed on Thursday the authenticity of 38,000 computer files seized from Marxist Colombian guerrillas that Bogota says shows links between the rebels and the leftist governments of Venezuela and Ecuador.
Colombian forces seized the files March 1 in a cross-border raid on a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) camp inside Ecuador.
The Venezuelan foreign minister said he also spoke Monday with his Colombian counterpart Fernando Araujo about an alleged incursion into Venezuelan territory by a 60-man Colombian unit.
Colombia denies the incident -- although Venezuela says it has pictures to prove it -- and both sides on Monday agreed to activate diplomatic mechanisms to find out what happened, Maduro said.
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