VILNIUS, Lithuania – The Lithuanian government on Friday denied Moscow's requests to hand over a Russian pilot whose fighter jet crashed in the NATO member's territory after violating its airspace, saying it must first complete an investigation.
Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas (search) said NATO investigators also would study the Su-27 fighter bomber's flight recorder, or black box, to determine the cause of the crash.
"We will not hand the pilot and the black box of the crashed plane over to Moscow until the investigation is completed," Kirkilas said.
The plane, en route from St. Petersburg to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (search), crashed near the village of Ploksciai, 190 kilometers (120 miles) northwest of Vilnius on Thursday. The pilot, Maj. Valery Troyanov, ejected safely and was not hurt, officials said.
Lithuanian Prosecutor Gintaas Jasaitis, coordinating the investigation, said Troyanov could face criminal charges if investigators find the crash was not caused by technical failure.
"The Russian pilot is considered a witness in the case, but his status may change after flight records are examined," Jasaitis told The Associated Press, adding that Troyanov would be released if the crash is deemed accidental.
Troyanov's jet had been flying in a convoy with other Russian aircraft which had been given permission to fly through an agreed "corridor" over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Lithuanian officials said.
He flew into Lithuanian airspace after separating from the convoy. The other aircraft reached Kaliningrad safely.
Troyanov was examined overnight in an undisclosed hospital before being taken to Vilnius on Friday for questioning.
On Thursday, Moscow requested that Troyanov and the plane's flight data recorder be handed over to Russian officials.
Maj. Gen. Valdas Tutkus (search), commander of the Lithuania's armed forces, said he believed the pilot did not intentionally violate Lithuanian airspace and that the crash was likely caused by a technical problem.
"We knew its precise route and did not feel it posed any threat," Tutkus told the Baltic News Agency, BNS.
He said Troyanov sent an SOS signal before crashing, which was also picked up by air force traffic controllers in neighboring Belarus, who contacted Lithuanian officials on a special hot line.
The Interior Ministry said it will issue visitors' visas to Troyanov and to a Russian delegation that planned to visit the crash site.
Kirkilas said Lithuania lacked experts who could examine the black box and would turn to its NATO allies for help.
The alliance, which has four F-4 fighters stationed at an air base in Lithuania, scrambled two of its fighters to intercept the Russian plane.
Maj. Karl Heinz Smuda, a spokesman for the German NATO contingent currently policing Baltic skies, praised the response time.
"According to regulations, we have 15 minutes to fly to the conflict zone," Smuda said. "Our pilots did it in eight minutes, and we are proud of it. When they arrived, the Russian pilot had already ejected and the fighter was nose-diving to the ground."
The Russian Defense Ministry apologized for the crash and promised to pay for any damage it caused.
The incident was the latest in a series of recent airspace violations by Russian planes in the region.
In May, Finland complained that Russian military aircraft had repeatedly violated its airspace over a period of several months. The violations took place in Finnish airspace over the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea as the jets flew to and from Kaliningrad.
Similar alleged violations by Russian planes have been reported in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In November, the Estonian government filed an official complaint with Moscow, but said none was serious enough to merit intervention by the four NATO fighters that patrol the Baltics' airspace.