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US bombers fly near islands claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea

The Pentagon says two US B-52 bombers that flew close to islands in the South China Sea were given warnings from a Chinese air traffic controller. The incident comes as US President Obama prepares to visit the region.

Pentagon spokesman Commander Bill Urban said the bombers flew "in the area" of the Spratly Islands but did not enter the 12-nautical-mile zones that China claims as territory around the archipelago.

"The B-52s were on a routine mission in the SCS (South China Sea)," taking off from and returning to Guam, Urban said.

Chinese ground controllers twice contacted the bombers but the aircraft completed their flight undeterred, he added. "Both aircraft continued their mission without incident, and at all times operated fully in accordance with international law," Urban said.

It is not the first time China has reacted to United States' activities in the disputed waters. Last month, a US warship

sailed past a series of islets

in the Spratly chain, provoking an angry response from Beijing. The patrol marked the most significant challenge yet by the US to China's territorial claims around its islands.

China claims most of the South China Sea, but Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims in the region.

Obama visits Asia

President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Asia next week, and it is expected territorial disputes will feature in his discussions with regional leaders. Washington has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight in the area - a position that has put it in direct dispute with Beijing.

Obama's first stop will be Manila for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, where Chinese President Xi Jinping will also be present. He will then go to Kuala Lumpur for ASEAN and East Asia summits.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it wasn't clear whether the South China Sea would be on the summits' formal agenda, but added it would be "on the minds and lips" of world leaders who gather there.

"We are quite concerned about protecting freedom of navigation, the free flow of commerce in the South China Sea," Earnest told reporters. "And we're going to continue to encourage all parties, big and small, to resolve their differences diplomatically and to not try to use their comparative size and strength to intimidate their neighbors."

China has insisted the APEC forum should not be used to

discuss rising tensions

over territory claims in the region.

nm/jm (AFP, Reuters)

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