A Russian fighter jets crashed into an American Reaper surveillance Drone over the Black Sea in international airspace on Tuesday, according to the US European Command.

In a press release, the U.S. Air Force said that at 2 a.m. Eastern (7 a.m. local time) a Russian Su-27 aircraft hit the propeller at the US MQ-9 aircraft, which conducts intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities. It was accompanied by a second Su-27 that was not involved in the collision but which US officials said was also involved in “unsafe” behaviour.

“Several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” the US release said.

“This incident shows a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.”

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US operators were forced to bring the drone down in international waters, “resulting in a crash and total loss of the MQ-9,” said US Air Force General James B. Hecker, commander, US Air Forces Europe and Air Forces Africa.

“In fact, this unsafe and unprofessional action by the Russians almost caused both aircraft to crash.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry denied the collision. It said the US drone flew over the Black Sea near Crimea and penetrated the area Russia has claimed is off-limits as part of its so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. That prompted the military to scramble jets to intercept it, according to the ministry.

“As a result of sharp maneuver, the MQ-9 drone entered an uncontrollable flight with a loss of altitude and crashed into water,” it said. “The Russian warplanes did not use their weapons or hit the unmanned aerial vehicle, and they returned safely to their base.”

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The incident would be the first time since 1960 that an American aircraft was shot down after an encounter with a Russian fighter jet.

The US says the interception is the latest in a pattern of “dangerous actions” by Russian pilots interacting with US and allied aircraft over international airspace. The US warns that the behavior is aggressive and “could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation.”

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“US and allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace and we urge the Russians to behave professionally and safely,” Hecker added.

The US added that its air forces in Europe routinely fly over sovereign territory and in international airspace.

State Department spokesman Ned Price called the incident a “flagrant violation of international law” and said the United States has summoned the Russian ambassador to file a protest.

Reuters reported that the ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, called the drone’s appearance over the Black Sea a “provocation” in comments to Russia’s state news agency RIA after his meeting at the US State Department.

“We see this incident as a provocation,” Antonov was quoted as saying, adding that talks with the United States were “constructive.”

US President Joe Biden has been briefed on the incident by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, according to White House national security spokesman John Kirby.

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At a press conference on Tuesday, Brig.-Gen. Defense Department Press Secretary Patrick Ryder said that while interceptions in international airspace are not unusual, with aircraft flying close together to see what’s there, the incident involving the Russian fighter jets was “unusual” and “unfortunate”. He said the US State Department is raising concerns about the incident directly with the Russian government.

According to Ryder, the American drone was conducting a mission when the incident occurred, with the Russian jets flying close to the MQ-9 for about 30 to 40 minutes before the collision shortly after 7 a.m. local time, leaving it “in a situation where it was unflyable. “

He said there was no communication between the US and Russia before the collision, and that the aircraft was “well clear” of any Ukrainian territory. The United States has not found the plane yet, Ryder said, and he would not say whether it was armed or not.

“(The jet) essentially ran into the MQ-9,” he said. “The actions speak for themselves.”

— with files from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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