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Nato denies role in YU airspace mystery, near-miss with Slovenian plane

BRUSSELS, Feb 20, 2000 -- (Reuters) NATO on Friday denied charges by Belgrade that alliance military aircraft violated Yugoslav air space twice in the past week and put civilian airliners at risk over Montenegro's Adriatic coast.

"On those dates and at these times there were no NATO aircraft in that area. There were no near-misses and there was no NATO air exercise," spokesman Lee McClenny said.

McClenny said officials at NATO southern command in Naples had carefully examined the detailed charges and established NATO was not in any way involved in the alleged incidents.

Yugoslav Transport Minister Dejan Drobnjakovic said on Wednesday illegal NATO air activity forced it to close Tivat airport on the Adriatic coast of the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.

The closure raised fears in pro-Western Montenegro of a fresh confrontation over airport control, as happened last December when federal troops loyal to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic faced off with Montenegrin police.

Tivat was closed again on Friday. Yugoslav officials said it was due to high winds - a frequent local problem in winter.

CYPRUS, SLOVENIA FLIGHTS CITED

Drobnjakovic said NATO had caused a "classic near-miss" with an airliner of Slovenian carrier Adria Airways on February 10 as it flew over the area on a journey from Ljubljana to Tirana.

On February 14, he said, a Cyprus Airlines flight from London to Larnaca reported unidentified aircraft in its vicinity.

In Nicosia, Cyprus Airways told Reuters its crew had reported unidentified aircraft, but no safety hazards. Radar readings showed them about 300 meters (1,000 feet) below the airliner's altitude, and on the limits of its radar range.

In Ljubljana, an Adria Airways spokeswoman said captain Andrej Travnik reported that he was informed by air traffic control of another aircraft flying below 9,000 meters (29,700 feet) in his vicinity on the flight to Tirana.

PLANE NOT IN SIGHT

Travnik, however, said the plane was not visible and the crew had no idea whether it was military or not.

Military sources said they could think of a few possible explanations for the mystery encounters above Montenegro.

There could be confusion between air controllers in the area, which includes Croatia, Montenegro, Belgrade and Bosnia.

Or there was the possibility that military aircraft were indeed operating in the space - in a secret Yugoslav Air Force exercise which required the closure of Tivat airport under some other pretext.

Yugoslav flight control director Miodrag Hadzic told Reuters in Belgrade on Wednesday that NATO had broken a fundamental rule of aviation by not reporting its activities 48 hours in advance in a so-called NOTAM, or Notification to Airman.

Belgrade authorities insisted they told the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Paris of the complaints.

ICAO could not be immediately contacted for comment




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