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US Calls China's Use of Lasers in Djibouti 'True Threat'

FILE - Chinese People's Liberation Army personnel attend the opening ceremony of China's new military base in Djibouti, Aug. 1, 2017.
FILE - Chinese People's Liberation Army personnel attend the opening ceremony of China's new military base in Djibouti, Aug. 1, 2017.

The United States is promising to hold China to account for what officials describe as a dangerous and reckless use of lasers near a U.S. military base in Africa.

“There will be near-term and long-term consequences,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Thursday when asked about Beijing’s use of high-powered, military-grade lasers to repeatedly target U.S. aircraft flying over the east African country of Djibouti.

China denies accusations

In a brief statement released late Friday, China’s Defense Ministry said the accusations were false.

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

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the Chinese side had conducted “serious checks” into the so-called criticisms and told the U.S. that the accusations were groundless.

“You can remind the relevant U.S. person to keep in mind the truthfulness of what they say and to not swiftly speculate or make accusations,” Hua said, speaking at a daily briefing.

US warns pilots

According to U.S. defense officials, the lasers were fired from the Chinese military base in Doraleh on at least three occasions, resulting in minor eye injuries for two American pilots.

“They are very serious incidents,” Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters Thursday.

“This activity poses a true threat to our airmen,” she said.

China has complained in the past about foreign military spy planes flying over its Djibouti outpost, sources familiar with the situation said.

The U.S. military issued a warning to pilots about the use of lasers in Djibouti in a notice that was posted last month on the Federal Aviation Administration website, urging them to use “extreme caution.”

Pentagon officials warn the continued use of such military-grade lasers could cause serious harm to air crews and threaten the safety of the surrounding area. They said while there had been some similar instances in the past, China’s use of the lasers increased over the past several weeks. That, along with the injuries to U.S. airmen, caused rising concern, they said.

Chinese military nearby

The Chinese military installation in Djibouti, its first foreign base, is close to Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent U.S. military facility on the African continent and a hub for U.S. counterterror operations.

During testimony before U.S. lawmakers in March, U.S. Africa Command’s Gen. Thomas Waldhauser described the Chinese military base at Doraleh as being “right outside our gates.”

“We are not naïve,” Waldhauser said at the time. “We are taking significant steps on the counterintelligence side so that we have all the defenses that we need.”

The issue threatens to further escalate tensions between the U.S. and China. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has imposed tariffs on some Chinese products and is threatening more. The administration has also placed new restrictions on U.S. technology exports to the East Asian country.

VOA's Steve Herman contributed to this report.