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US says Chinese lasers targeted its planes near Djibouti, Beijing denies

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WASHINGTON: The US has issued a formal complaint to the Chinese government over the use of high-grade lasers near the military base in Djibouti that were directed at aircraft and resulted in minor injuries to two American pilots, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said that the US is confident that Chinese nationals are responsible for the use of the lasers, which targeted aircraft on several occasions in the last few weeks. White said the incidents represent a serious threat to US airmen, and that the US has asked China to investigate the incidents.

She estimated there have been fewer than 10 laser incidents in recent weeks, and the Pentagon sought the formal complaint because of the injuries and the growing number of instances the problem happened.

Marine Lt Col Chris Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said that reports from pilots indicate that on three occasions the lasers were military grade and came from the Chinese base nearby.

In a brief statement, China’s defence ministry said the US accusations were false.

“We have already refuted the untrue criticisms via official channels. The Chinese side consistently strictly abides by international law and laws of the local country, and is committed to protecting regional security and stability.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the government had conducted “serious checks” and told the US side the accusations were groundless.

Djibouti is strategically located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal.

Djibouti hosts a US military base that is home to about 4,000 personnel, including special operations forces, and is a launch pad for operations in Yemen and Somalia.

China last year opened a naval base in Djibouti, marking the first overseas base for Beijing’s rapidly growing military. It is just a few miles from the US base.

In addition to issuing the formal diplomatic demarche, the US also put out a notice to airmen, saying they should exercise caution when flying near certain areas in Djibouti.

The pilots suffered minor eye injuries. There were no aircraft crashes or other more serious problems.

Lasers present a serious problem because when aimed at aircraft they can injure pilots or temporarily blind them — which can present safety risks particularly as they are taking off and landing.

Updated: May 4, 2018 — 11:36 am

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