Chinese personnel at the country's first overseas military base in Djibouti have been using lasers to interfere with US military aircraft at a nearby American base, activity that has resulted in injuries to US pilots and prompted the US to launch a formal diplomatic protest with Beijing, two military officials told CNN.
The US issued a notice to airmen "to exercise caution when flying in certain areas in Djibouti," which "was issued due to lasers being directed at US aircraft on a small number of separate occasions over the last few weeks," according to the notice obtained by CNN.
"During one incident, there were two minor eye injuries of aircrew flying in a C-130 that resulted from exposure to military-grade laser beams, which were reported to have originated from the nearby Chinese base," the notice said.
Two US military officials told CNN that the issue was of major concern as such activity can cause major accidents. The officials said that the State Department had lodged a formal diplomatic protest with Beijing in an effort to get China to stop the activity.
Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White confirmed the incidents later on Thursday, saying the United States has "formally demarched" the Chinese government over the incidents and has "requested" that the Chinese launch their own investigation of the situation.
"This activity poses a true threat to our airmen," White said, later saying that the incidents had grown increasingly serious over the last few weeks.
A US defense official told CNN that the US military also believes the Chinese use similar lasers to interfere with US aircraft in the South China Sea.
Last month the US military was forced to briefly halt air operations in the East African nation of Djibouti, a critical location in the fight against terrorism, following a series of accidents involving aircraft. The halting of air operations was done at the request of Djiboutian government.
There are about 4,000 US personnel in Djibouti, based at Camp Lemonnier. The US military places a lot of importance on its ability to base forces in Djibouti given its critically strategic location near countries like Somalia and Yemen, where the US regularly targets terrorists in airstrikes.
But US officials have recently expressed concern about the growing influence of China in Djibouti, noting its establishment of its first military base there and its close economic links with the country.
Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who oversees US Africa Command, acknowledged both challenges during an appearance before Congress in March.
"We are taking significant steps on the counterintelligence side so that we have all the defenses that we need there, there is no doubt about that," said Waldhauser, referring to the proximity of the new Chinese base.