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Croatia criticizes NATO after crash of Russian-made drone

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatian officials criticized NATO Saturday for what they said was its slow reaction to a military drone that apparently flew from the Ukrainian war zone through the airspace of three NATO member states, before crashing in the Croatian capital.

The Russian-made unmanned aircraft crossed Romania and Hungary before entering Croatia and slamming late Thursday into a field near a student dormitory. Some 40 parked cars were damaged but no one was injured after a loud blast.

NATO said the alliance’s integrated air and missile defense had tracked the object’s flight path. But the Croatian prime minister said the country’s authorities were not informed and that NATO reacted only after question were posed by journalists.

“We cannot tolerate this situation, nor should it have ever happened,” Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said while visiting the crash site.

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“This was a pure and clear threat and both NATO and the EU should have reacted,” he said. “We will work to raise the readiness not only of us but of others as well. ”

Plenkovic said a Soviet-era Tu-141 “Strizh” reconnaissance drone flew for over 40 minutes over Hungary and six to seven minutes over Croatia before crashing. Earlier, Romanian defense authorities said the drone was in Romania’s airspace for only three minutes after crossing from Ukraine, making it hard to intercept.

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Plenkovic called on Hungarian authorities to launch an investigation into why its defenses apparently did not notice the unmanned drone as both Croatia and Romania had little time to react to the fast-moving object.

“Fortunately, something much worse did not happen,” Plenkovic said, adding that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban “found out about this after me.”

“This could have fallen on the nuclear power plant in Hungary. Obviously there was no good reaction and other countries did not react well. Now we have a test from which we have to learn and react much better,” he said.

He said that only an investigation can determine who launched the drone — the Russians or the Ukrainians — after the aircraft is pulled out of a large crater created after impact.

Both Russia and Ukraine have denied they launched the drone.

Military experts say Ukraine is the only known current operator of the Tu-141, which has a wingspan of nearly 4 meters (12 feet) and weighs just over 6 tons.

No election in post-Soviet Turkmenistan has been considered genuinely competitive. While eight candidates ran against Berdymukhamedov in the last election in 2017, all expressed support for his government and Berdymukhamedov garnered more than 97% of the vote.

Berdymukhamedov came to power in 2006 after the death of the eccentric Saparmurat Niyazov and established a pervasive personality cult similar to that of his predecessor. Under his rule, the country has remained difficult for outsiders to enter. Turkmenistan has not reported any cases of infection in the coronavirus pandemic.

It also has struggled to diversify its economy, which is overwhelmingly dependent on its vast natural gas reserves. China has replaced Russia as the top export destination for Turkmen gas, while Russian demand is expected to shrink further amid tensions with the West over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Berdymukhamedov has cultivated an image of robust health with media stunts that included firing a pistol at a man-sized target while riding a bicycle and hoisting a gold weightlifting bar, to the applause of his Cabinet. He is titled Arkadag, or Protector.

On a visit to a polling station with his wheelchair-bound, 85 year-old mother, the Turkmen president hailed the vote as “historic.”

When Berdymukhamedov announced the vote last month, he said that the country should be run by younger people. His son has recently turned 40, the minimum age for president according to the Turkmen law.

During the campaign, all candidates praised Berdymukhamedov, who said he will retain the post of the head of the country’s upper house of parliament.

Turnout was heavy, with over 90% of voters casting their ballots hours before polls closed.

Folk dancers and singers performed as loud music blared from loudspeakers at polling stations. Engulfing the stations where fumes from burning harmala, a plant widely used in Turkmenistan to fumigate homes and public spaces to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 64, announced the vote last month, setting stage for his 40-year old son Serdar to take over. Preliminary results are expected Sunday, but few doubt that the president’s son will win by landslide.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov has risen through a series of increasingly prominent government posts and most recently has served as the country’s deputy prime minister, answering directly to his father.

He is facing what appears to be token competition from eight other nominal contenders in Saturday’s vote, including a deputy regional governor and a lawmaker.

“My main goal is to continue on the glorious path of development built during 30 years of independence and to successfully implement programs aimed to ensure a high level of social conditions for the people,” Serdar Berdymukhamedov said while presenting his platform in televised speech.

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