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Soviets Apologize for Firing Shell Near U.S. Plane

Times Staff Writer

The heavy guns of a Soviet warship plying the Mediterranean in late September opened fire as a U.S. surveillance plane flew overhead, barely missing the aircraft and prompting a Soviet apology, according to the U.S. Navy.

Pentagon officials said that Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri T. Yazov discussed the incident in a meeting with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney earlier this week.

According to the U.S. officials, Yazov said that the near-miss dramatizes the need for U.S. and Soviet military negotiators to hammer out details of an accord regulating the operation of military forces near each other.

Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed an agreement in June with Soviet Col. Gen. Mikhail A. Moiseyev, a first deputy defense minister, designed to prevent dangerous military activities.

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The incident occurred Sept. 22, as a 6,000-ton Soviet guided missile destroyer conducted gunnery exercises south of the Greek island of Crete, U.S. Navy officials said.

An American P-3 Orion aircraft on routine surveillance approached the warship and was flying along its starboard side when one of the ship’s four 130-millimeter guns fired a shell that passed in front of the plane and exploded. Turbulence from the blast jolted the Orion.

The U.S. Navy immediately protested the action, using diplomatic channels opened by the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement. The Soviet Union, responding within days, “expressed regret and indicated that the Soviet warship was involved in a gunnery exercise and had no intent of endangering the U.S. aircraft,” according to Lt. Frank Thorp, a Navy spokesman.

Thorp said that the U.S. Navy was “pleased” with the Soviet response. “We consider the incident satisfactorily closed,” he said.

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But sources said that in spite of the Soviet apology, Moscow remains concerned that the actions of both the Soviet ship and the U.S. warplane could have brought the superpowers so close to a potentially explosive incident.

The Incidents at Sea agreement does not bar such close passes. While it is still being negotiated, the newer agreement on the prevention of dangerous military activities may establish stricter limits, including restrictions on the distance and altitude at which surveillance planes can pass close to warships of the other nation.

In addition, the agreement would establish procedures for communication between the skippers of such warships and the pilots of overflying warplanes. The proposed accord would take effect Jan. 1.


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