A US Navy surveillance jet lost its way during a counter-drug mission and strayed into Venezuelan airspace, US officials said yesterday following a vehement Venezuelan protest.
Venezuelan Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel called the overflight “a deliberate action” and “another link in a chain of provocations.”
Rangel said the Venezuelan air defense system tracked the S-3 Viking over the Venezuelan island of La Orchila on Saturday at 8:40pm.
The island is a military base and a presidential retreat that lies in the Caribbean just north of Venezuelan proper.
The US, responding hours later, portrayed the incident as an inadvertent incursion into Venezuelan airspace.
“A US S-3 aircraft conducting counter-drugs operations lost navigational situational awareness causing it to fly into Venezuelan airspace off the mainland coast,” the Joint Interagency Task Force South said in a statement.
The aircraft was assigned to the military-led task force, which directs US counter-drug operations in the Caribbean from its headquarters in Key West, Florida.
Commander Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said the S-3 aircrew was queried by Venezuelan air traffic control at Maiquetia after experiencing “intermittent navigational problems” while on a mission originating in Curacao.
The US Air Force operates a base for US counter-drug operations in Curacao, one of the Netherlands Antilles near Venezuela.
“Our crew promptly responded with information including the fact that they were a US Navy aircraft, gave their call sign, that they were flying in international airspace on a mission originating in Curacao and that a navigational error had occurred,” Gordon said.
He said a language barrier apparently delayed the initial conversation between the US crew and the Venezuelans, but the exchange lasted about three minutes.
S-3 Vikings were originally designed as an anti-submarine warfare aircraft, but are now used mostly for maritime surveillance and as an air refueling plane.
However, some have been modified for electronic warfare and intelligence gathering.
The Venezuelan defense minister said the S-3 “practically flew over” two Venezuelan islands before turning back and heading toward the Netherlands Antilles, small islands just off Venezuela’s northern coast.
“We ordered the airplane to identify itself,” Rangel said at a press conference in Caracas. “We have recorded proof of the conversation between ground control in Venezuela and the aircraft pilot.”
“He said he was not aware that he was over Venezuelan territory,” said Rangel, adding: “This was a deliberate action. It is another link in the chain of provocations.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro described the incident as an “illegal overflight.”
“We are first going to listen to the explanations from the United States and ... will take the necessary actions so this does not happen again,” Maduro said.