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Japan scrambles fighters, claiming airspace violation

Japan has said for the first time that China violated its airspace as part of the countries' ongoing islet dispute in the East China Sea. Government officials have said they scrambled air force jets; no shots were fired.

Japan scrambled eight F-15 fighter jets on Thursday, saying a state-owned Chinese plane had flown within its airspace over a series of contested islands.

The defense ministry in Tokyo said it was the first such aerial incursion by a state plane since the military started monitoring the area in 1958.

Japan refers to the small islets as the Senkakus, while China calls them the Diaoyus. The islands are situated in the East China Sea, closest to Taiwan, which also claims the territory.

"It was a fixed-wing Y-12 aeroplane belonging to the Chinese State Oceanic Administration. We confirmed that this aeroplane flew in our country's airspace," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters. "It is extremely regrettable. We will continue to resolutely deal with any act violating our country's sovereignty, in accordance with domestic laws and regulations."

The Y-12 is a twin-turboprop suitable for surveillance or small-scale transport.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the flight was "completely normal," saying that the "Diaoyu" islands were longstanding parts of "China's inherent territory."

A regular coastguard patrol spotted the plane, radioing it to ask it to turn away from Japanese airspace. According to the Japanese coastguard, the pilot responded with words to the effect that he was in Chinese airspace.

Both countries fish the waters surrounding the uninhabited islands, which are also close to shipping lanes. The area is considered a possible site of oil reserves. The two sides have maneuvered various fishing and surveillance ships around the territory in recent months, but no airborne incidents had previously been reported.

Japanese voters will take part in a general election on Sunday, December 16.

msh/dr (AFP, Reuters)