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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vilnius Rejects New Call to Hand Over Pilot

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday rejected calls from Moscow to hand over an Air Force pilot whose fighter jet crashed in the Baltic country, saying the pilot is considered a suspect in the crash investigation.

Major Valery Troyanov's Su-27 fighter bomber crashed Thursday in Lithuania en route from St. Petersburg to the exclave of Kaliningrad. He is suspected of violating Lithuanian airspace and will not be released until the investigation is completed, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Albinas Januska said.

Moscow had renewed a demand Monday that Lithuania, a former Soviet republic that joined NATO last year, hand Troyanov and the crashed plane back to Russia.

"Russia's position is that Air Force Major Troyanov and the plane, which is the property of the Russian armed forces, found themselves accidentally in Lithuania," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Troyansky told Ekho Moskvy radio. "They therefore enjoy immunity from the sovereignty of that country and should be returned to Russia."

Russian Defense Ministry officials on the day of the crash told their Lithuanian counterparts that the jet was unarmed, but investigators have found two air-to-air missiles in the wreckage.

"It seems like Russia is requesting the right to violate the airspace of a NATO member state, drop its missiles all over, and then retreat calmly and easily," Januska said Tuesday. "We have expressed protest to the Russian Embassy over the propaganda campaign, which is aimed at discrediting Lithuania as a NATO member state."

Lithuanian Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas said only diplomats, not pilots, have immunity.

Troyanov's plane was part of a convoy of Russian aircraft given permission to fly through an agreed upon "corridor" over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Lithuanian officials said. The other aircraft reached Kaliningrad safely.