Iran says captures U.S. drone in its airspace

* Iran guards display what they says is captured drone

* U.S. says has not lost unmanned plane in Middle East

* Drones used in several Gulf nations for oil security

DUBAI, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Iran said on Tuesday it had

captured a U.S. intelligence ScanEagle drone in its airspace

over the Gulf in the last few days, but the United States said

there was no evidence to support the assertion.

The U.S. Navy said had not lost any unmanned aircraft in the

area. The four-foot (1.25 metre) surveillance drones built by

Boeing Co are deployed in the region by the United States

military and also by other countries.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "We

have no evidence that the Iranian claims are true."

The incident highlighted tensions in the Gulf as Iran and

the United States demonstrate their military capabilities in the

vital oil exporting region in a standoff over Iran's disputed

nuclear programme.

Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz

- through which about 40 percent of the world's seaborne crude

oil is shipped - if it comes under attack. U.S. commanders have

said they will not let that happen.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps said on its website

that the drone had been flying over the Gulf in the last few

days and was "captured" when it strayed into Iranian airspace.

A spokesman for U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain

said none of its drones were missing.

"The U.S. Navy has fully accounted for all unmanned air

vehicles (UAV) operating in the Middle East region. Our

operations in the Gulf are confined to internationally

recognised water and air space," Commander Jason Salata said.

The ScanEagle is an "off the shelf" spy plane manufactured

by Insitu, a unit of U.S.-based Boeing. The company also

supplies and operates drones for customers in several Middle

Eastern countries, including to help ensure oil platform

security in the Gulf, according to its website.

The U.S. military has been using the ScanEagle spy planes

since 2004 and they have become a relatively inexpensive way for

the United States and others to conduct surveillance.

Jill Vacek, a spokeswoman for Boeing subsidiary Insitu, said

the company had built 1,685 of the aircraft. Other military

customers include Canada, Australia, Poland, the Netherlands,

Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan, as well as "other U.S.

Department of Defense customers," she said.

One year ago, the company also announced an alliance with an

Abu Dhabi-based company to support ScanEagle and other unmanned

vehicles in the Middle East.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran had

warned the United States over its violations, and would use the

drone as evidence of American incursions to pursue its complaint

"via international bodies", IRIB News reported.

The IRGC statement did not specify when or where the drone

was found, nor whether it was shot down or crashed. It released

what it said was video of an apparently undamaged ScanEagle

being examined by uniformed officers beneath an English-language

sign reading "We shall trample on the U.S."

The incident is the latest in a string of complaints by Iran

over what it says are U.S. violations of its territory in an

often clandestine conflict over Tehran's nuclear programme that

has featured assassinations, espionage and cyber sabotage.

Iran and OPEC rival Saudi Arabia have also accused each

other of violating each other's territory near oil and gas

fields in the Gulf over the past year.

VIOLATIONS

In what a spokesman insisted was a coincidence, the U.S.

Navy posted a news release on its website on Tuesday boasting

about a new Puma AE airborne surveillance drone being tested

aboard ships of its 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain.

"High overhead, rain or shine, an elusive, yet sophisticated

surveillance equipment flies in areas that are difficult to see

with the naked eye," the statement said of the lightweight

high-winged monoplane.

In November, the United States said Iranian warplanes shot

at a U.S. surveillance drone flying in international airspace.

Iran said the aircraft had entered its airspace to spy on

Iranian oil platforms and said it would respond "decisively" to

any incursions.

Days later Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad

Khazaee, wrote to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to complain

about what he said were repeated U.S. violations of Iranian

airspace, describing them as "illegal and provocative acts".

Khazaee said that U.S. craft had entered southern Iran seven

times in October around Bushehr where Iran's only nuclear power

station is situated.

A year ago to the day, Iranian forces announced they had

captured a U.S. RQ-170 reconnaissance drone in eastern Iran

which was reported lost by U.S. forces in neighbouring

Afghanistan.

Iranian commanders have since announced they have extracted

valuable technology from the aircraft and were in the process of

reverse-engineering it for their own defence industry.

The United States and its allies believe Tehran is trying to

develop nuclear weapons and have imposed tough economic and

financial sanctions. Iran says its programme is purely peaceful.

Israel has threatened to bomb Iranian nuclear sites if

diplomacy and sanctions fail to stop its nuclear activities, and

Washington also says a military option is on the table. In

October, Israel shot down an Iranian-made drone launched into

the Jewish state by Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah.

According to Boeing's publicity material, the ScanEagle

drone can be launched by a catapult from mobile vehicles or

small ships, making it independent of runways.

It can fly pre-programmed or operator-run missions guided by

navigation satellites and its onboard flight control system. It

is retrieved using a "Skyhook" system in which the drone catches

a rope hanging from a 50-ft (16-metre) high pole.

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