The U.S. military released dramatic video of a tense encounter on Wednesday over the skies of eastern Syria as Russian fighter jets were seen "harassing" three American military drones carrying out a mission against the Islamic State group, an official said.
In a statement, the U.S. Air Force general in the Middle East labeled the run-in "unsafe and unprofessional behavior" and called on Russia to stop what he called "reckless behavior" that has been carried out by pilots flying over eastern Syria where the U.S. still has 900 troops assisting in anti-terrorism efforts.
The conduct "threaten[s] the safety of both U.S. and Russian forces," he said.
Wednesday's incident is the latest in a string of dozens of what officials describe as provocative Russian flights over eastern Syria, which prompted the U.S. to send F-22 Raptors to deter flights above American military bases there.
Multiple cameras and sensors aboard the three MQ-9 Reaper drones captured in vivid detail how the Russian Su-35 jets on Wednesday dropped parachuted flares in the drones' path and one of the jets used its afterburners in front of one of the drones.
The quick declassification of the video capturing the encounter recalled a similar video release in March to show a Russian pilot's similar harassment of an MQ-9 flying in international airspace above the Black Sea, resulting in a collision, officials said then.
Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the commander of the Ninth Air Force and the combined forces air component commander for U.S. Central Command, said in a statement that Russia initiated the altercation.
"Against established norms and protocols, the Russian jets dropped multiple parachute flares in front of the drones, forcing our aircraft to conduct evasive maneuvers," Grynkewich said.
"Additionally, one Russian pilot positioned their aircraft in front of an MQ-9 and engaged afterburner, thereby reducing the operator's ability to safely operate the aircraft," he said.
"We urge Russian forces in Syria to cease this reckless behavior and adhere to the standards of behavior expected of a professional air force so we can resume our focus on the enduring defeat of ISIS."
In mid-June, CENTCOM announced that it was deploying F-22 Raptors to the Middle East to deter Russian flights above American bases in eastern Syria.
"Russian Forces' unsafe and unprofessional behavior is not what we expect from a professional air force. Their regular violation of agreed upon airspace deconfliction measures increases the risk of escalation or miscalculation," Gen. Michael "Erik" Kurilla, head of CENTCOM, said then. "Alongside our partners and allies, we are committed to improving the security and stability in the region."
Defense officials have said that there have been dozens of incidents in recent months where Russian jets have overflown American bases without using a safety line that has been in use for years to prevent miscalculations.