U.S. to send F-16 jets to Romania for exercises

BUCHAREST Mon Apr 7, 2014 6:51am EDT

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BUCHAREST (Reuters) - The United States will deploy F-16 fighter jets to Romania this month as part of planned joint exercises, the NATO member's defense minister was quoted as saying, amid rising tensions in neighboring Ukraine after Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Last month, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer conducted naval exercises with Romania and Bulgaria in the Black Sea, just a few hundreds miles (km) from Crimea, in a show of Washington's military reach.

"American F-16 jets will be in Romania ... because we have planned joint exercises in Romania's air space during this time, and they will stay for a pretty long period," Romania's Defense Minister Mircea Dusa was quoted by Mediafax news agency late on Sunday as saying.

Last week, the Pentagon said it would send 175 new troops to a Romanian base near the Black Sea as part of plans to bolster the size of its Europe-based Africa crisis response force.

President Barack Obama has said NATO needs to boost its presence in eastern European countries that feel vulnerable to Russia after its annexation of Crimea. The small Baltic states are particularly nervous about a more assertive Russia.

The small ex-Soviet republic of Moldova, which has strong linguistic and cultural ties to Romania, is also jittery because its separatist, mainly Russian-speaking region of Transdniestria has said it wants to follow Crimea's example and join Russia.

Dusa said Bucharest had "other requests to our American partner and to NATO" over deploying squadrons in Romania until the country's own F-16 fleet becomes operational in 2017. He did not elaborate.

Romania's leftist government approved a plan last year to buy second-hand F-16 fighter jets from Portugal to bring its air force up to NATO standards.

Romania, along with neighboring Bulgaria, joined NATO in 2004 and has been part of Washington's military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is in the process of phasing out its outdated Soviet-made MiG-21s.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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