Russian jets stage exercises over Mediterranean

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Russian military has launched training flights over the Mediterranean Sea amid a standoff with the West over Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Navy spokesman Vadim Serga said on Friday that deployment had started from the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, which docked last month off the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

In addition, Serga said, the training included tactics for engaging aerial targets and other battle techniques.

According to Serga the aircraft taking part in the training flights were Sukhoi SU-33 air defense fighters and Kamov Ka-27 anti-submarine helicopters.

On Thursday, Russia began military drills close to the border with Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry said more than 8,000 troops in the regions of Rostov, Belgorod, Kursk and Tambov bordering Ukraine were involved in the exercises, which will continue until the end of the month.

The military drills came as the self-declared government of Ukraine decided on March 13 to form a 60,000-strong National Guard in an attempt to boost the country’s defenses.

Tensions deepened between Western powers and Moscow after Ukraine’s Crimean authorities said they will hold a referendum on March 16 on whether to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.

On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel threatened Russia with sanctions unless Moscow engages in talks to find a diplomatic solution to the political crisis in Ukraine.

Ukraine has been gripped by a political crisis since November 2013, when ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, refrained from signing the Association Agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.

The rejection triggered months of anti-government protests that led to the ouster of Yanukovych on February 23.

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