Canada intercepts two Russian bombers off Canada's Arctic coast

TORONTO (AP) — Fighter jets were scrambled to intercept two Russian bombers in the Arctic as they approached Canadian airspace on the eve of a visit from Canada's prime minister who will observe an Arctic military exercise, a spokesman for the prime minister said Wednesday.

Dimitri Soudas, Stephen Harper's director of communications, said two Canadian CF-18 jets shadowed a pair of Russian TU-95 Bear jets in international airspace on Tuesday.

Soudas said the bombers flew within 30 miles (50 kilometers) of Canadian soil. They were first spotted approximately 120 nautical miles north of Inuvik, Northwest Territories.

"Thanks to the rapid response of the Canadian Forces, at no time did the Russian aircraft enter sovereign Canadian airspace," Soudas said in an e-mail.

Soudas warned that the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint U.S. and Canadian agency, "carefully monitors all air activities in the North and considers all options to protect the air sovereignty of Canada and the United States."

Harper is due to observe an annual military exercise in the Canadian Arctic on Wednesday. Soudas said Harper was briefed during and at the conclusion of the intercept mission. He said the Canadian jets returned to base without incident.

Canada has linked recent Russian flights in the area to the competition between Canada, Russia, the U.S. and other countries to secure Arctic resources. With polar ice melting there are new opportunities to exploit the region's oil, gas and mineral reserves.

Two Russian bombers were intercepted last month off Canada's East Coast near the Arctic and in February 2009, fighter jets scrambled to intercept a Russian bomber in the Arctic as it approached Canadian airspace on the eve of President Barack Obama's visit to Ottawa. The Russians said then the plane never encroached on Canadian airspace and that Canada had been told about the flight beforehand. Canada's defense minister said Russia gives no warning prior to the flight, despite Canada's request for Russia to do so.

Harper has made the Arctic a priority by making annual trips and pledging to increase Canada's military presence.

Soviet aircraft regularly flew near North American airspace during the Cold War but stopped after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Several years ago, Russian jets resumed these types of flights.

Canadian opposition Liberal lawmaker Larry Bagnell said the Russian flights are routine and the Conservative government seems to make a fuss only when it suits them.

Soudas noted in his e-mail Canada's recent purchase of 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets from U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. The $8.5 billion purchase, one of the biggest military equipment purchases in the country's history, was due to be debated at a parliamentary defense committee hearing on Wednesday. The jets will replace the Air Force's aging fleet of CF-18s.