Iceland Tracks More Bombers

NEW YORK -- Russia's military has stepped up activity over the North Atlantic in the past 18 months, sending long-range bombers through the region no less than 12 times, Iceland's prime minister said.

"We have not seen much increased naval activity. There have been some exercises but there has been more aviation activity," Prime Minister Geir Haarde said in an interview late last week.

"They have been sending their Bear [bomber] planes more frequently than they used to. They used to do it all the time during the Cold War but then it stopped," he said.

Since summer 2006, Russian long-range bombers have entered the Iceland Air Defense System surveillance area in the North Atlantic, coming within 65 kilometers of Iceland's coast and twice circumnavigating the island nation, the government said.

"First of all, we need to be concerned about our security and our defense just like everybody else," Haarde said before delivering a speech at the annual conference of the Icelandic-American Chamber of Commerce.

Russia has increased its military flights near U.S. and NATO territory in the past year, reviving the long-haul missions common during the Cold War and demonstrating a long-range strike capability.

Iceland has no regular military force but is responsible for the air traffic control over the North Atlantic that sees 90,000 aircraft pass through in a year, the prime minister's office said. U.S. military forces left Iceland, a NATO member, in 2006.

Haarde favors broad NATO air policing set to begin later this year, saying it would be irresponsible not to have air cover. Another point of concern has been the threat to civil aviation by the unannounced arrival of Russian bombers in Iceland's airspace.

Iceland will host aircraft from member nations starting in May.

Asked if the flights were targeting Russia, Haarde said: "No, it is going to be a general patrolling exercise. We consider Russia to be our friends, by the way."