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US and Russia in plane hijack drill

American and Russian fighter jets will take turns pursuing a civilian plane across the Pacific next week in a landmark exercise to test their response to a potential international hijacking.

Aircraft and officers from Russia and the North American Aerospace Defence Command, a joint US-Canadian agency, will track the civilian plane, an executive-style jet that will play the role of a hijacked civilian airliner.

Vigilant Eagle, the three-day exercise due to start in Alaska, is the first of its kind to test how well the two forces can hand off responsibility for the "hijacked" plane.Both countries' civil air traffic control agencies are also taking part.

Officials on both sides of the trust-building military exercise chose a mutual, modern-day interest - the fight against terror - to create an incident that could entangle the two countries.

"We try to anticipate any potential areas in which it might be necessary for us to launch fighter jets," said Major Michael Humphreys, a NORAD spokesman. A terrorist hijacking, he said, "is every bit as probable as any other" scenario.

Moscow faces terrorist attacks by radicals from restive Russian provinces. In March, suicide bombers killed 40 on the Moscow tube network and an explosion in November 2009 derailed a Moscow-bound train, killing 26. More recently, on July 29, a man seized a plane with 105 passengers and crew at a Moscow airport.

The US is still wrestling with terrorist threats to planes and tube networks nearly nine years after the September 11 2001 hijackings. A Nigerian man is accused of trying to blow up a passenger plane over Detroit on Christmas Day and authorities thwarted an alleged plot to carry out three suicide bombings on New York City tube networks in September 2009.

John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, which tracks military and US homeland security news, said it was unlikely that Vigilant Eagle was devised to deal with a specific threat.

The purpose was more likely a combination of confidence building and rooting out any communication and jurisdictional problems before they cropped up in a real emergency, he said.

Progress has come in fits and starts since the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving Russia without the satellite nations of the USSR. But the two countries have performed many joint exercises including search-and-rescue scenarios and have participated in multi-national peacekeeping missions in places like Bosnia.

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