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U.S. to resume flights near North Korea

From Barbara Starr

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Air Force said Wednesday it will resume reconnaissance flights off the coast of North Korea for the first time since a March 2 incident that was perceived as hostile.

Four North Korea MiG fighters intercepted an Air Force RC-135 aircraft 150 miles off the Korean peninsula over the Sea of Japan and apparently gestured for the pilot to land in North Korea, Pentagon officials said.

The Pentagon did not say when the flights would resume. Officials said there will be an AWACs early warning airplane nearby and some Navy Aegis-radar equipped ships in the Sea of Japan keeping watch for any new activity by North Korean fighters.

The flights will not be accompanied by armed fighter escorts. Defense Department officials recommended against escorts because the reconnaissance flights are conducted in international airspace and are characterized as routine and non-threatening. Officials said they did not want to further militarize the operation by sending fighter escorts.

The AWACS and Aegis radars should be able to detect any North Korean aircraft from a long distance and warn pilots of reconnaissance flights, they said.

On March 2 the Air Force crew had no warning the North Korean MiGs were nearby. At least one of the MiGs came within 50 feet of the U.S. plane and one of the MiGs' radars was turned on, raising the threat of the North Koreans using on-board heat seeking missiles.

The incident was videotaped by the U.S. crew. Pentagon officials who have seen the videotape tell CNN it shows the North Korean pilot gesturing with his thumb in a downward motion. That has been interpreted to mean the North Koreans were trying to make the U.S. crew follow them and land in North Korea.

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