Iceland sees more Russian flights in N. Atlantic

NEW YORK Fri Mar 14, 2008 5:51pm EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Russia has stepped up military activity over the North Atlantic in the past 18 months, Iceland's prime minister told Reuters, sending long-range bombers through the region no less than 12 times.

"We have not seen much increased naval activity. There have been some exercises but there has been more aviation activity," Prime Minister Geir Haarde said in an interview on Thursday.

"They have been sending their Bear (bomber) planes more frequently than they used to. They used to do it all the time during the Cold War but then it stopped," he said.

Since the summer of 2006, Russian long-range bombers have entered the Iceland Air Defense System surveillance area in the North Atlantic, coming within 35 nautical miles of Iceland's coast and twice circumnavigating the island nation, the government said.

"First of all, we need to be concerned about our security and our defense just like everybody else," Haarde said before delivering a speech at the annual conference of the Icelandic-American Chamber of Commerce.

Russia has increased its military flights near U.S. and NATO territory in the past year, reviving the long-haul missions common during the Cold War and demonstrating a long-range strike capability.

The move comes as relations between Russia and the United States and NATO remain uneasy due in part to U.S. plans to place missile defense assets in formerly Soviet-allied territory and disagreements over security issues in central Europe and the Balkans.

AIR POLICING

Iceland has no regular military force but is responsible for the air traffic control over the North Atlantic that sees 90,000 aircraft pass through in a year, the prime minister's office said.

U.S. military forces left Iceland, a NATO member, in 2006.

Haarde favors broad NATO air policing set to begin later this year, saying it would be irresponsible not to have air cover.

Another point of concern has been the threat to civil aviation by the unannounced arrival of Russian bombers in Iceland's airspace.

"The (NATO) Alliance agreed that they would provide this kind of air policing on an intermittent basis to show support," Haarde said.

Iceland will host aircraft from member nations starting in May. There will be four deployments a year for three years. France plans to send four fighter interceptors in the first deployment, Haarde said.

"We will be getting and hosting air policing as of May this year. First by the French and then by several other nations under the aegis of NATO. ... The Americans have offered to take part in this, this summer," Haarde said.

Asked if the flights were targeting Russia, Haarde said: "No, it is going to be a general patrolling exercise. We consider Russia to be our friends, by the way."

(Editing by Xavier Briand)