ANKARA: NATO member Turkey shot down a Russian war plane on the Syrian border yesterday, an act President Vladimir Putin denounced as a “stab in the back” by “accomplices of terrorists” as tensions spiraled between two rival players in the Syria war. Turkey called an extraordinary meeting of NATO while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had scrapped a planned trip to Turkey today aimed at narrowing differences on the Syria conflict.
The Turkish army said the plane was shot down by two of its F-16s after it violated Turkish airspace 10 times within a five-minute period, an assertion backed up by its NATO ally the United States. Moscow insisted that the jet had stayed inside Syrian territory, and Damascus denounced the incident as “flagrant aggression against Syrian sovereignty”.
Footage from private Turkish broadcaster Haberturk TV showed the warplane going down in flames, a long plume of smoke trailing behind it as it crashed in a wooded part of an area the TV said was known by Turks as “Turkmen Mountain”. Separate footage from Turkey’s Anadolu Agency showed two pilots parachuting out of the jet before it crashed. A deputy commander of rebel Turkmen forces in Syria said his men shot both pilots dead as they came down. A video sent to Reuters earlier appeared to show one of the pilots immobile and badly wounded on the ground and an official from the rebel group said he was dead. But a Turkish government official told Reuters the pilots were believed still to be alive and that Ankara was working to secure their release from Syrian rebels.
A Russian helicopter was also blown up by rebels following an emergency landing in government-held territory after it was damaged by rebel fire. Russian military spokesman General Sergei Rudskoi said one soldier was killed. Rebels blew up the helicopter shortly afterwards with a TOW anti-tank missile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. A video circulating online purported to show the helicopter on the ground being blown up. US-made TOW missiles have been supplied by Washington and other rebel backers to several opposition groups in Syria.
The shooting down of the Russian aircraft the first of its kind since Russia launched air strikes in Syria in September in support of President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, causing concern in the West over a possible clash with US-led coalition planes also in the skies. Putin branded the downing a “stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists”. He said oil from jihadist-controlled territory was exported through Turkey while funding was sent the other way, and warned: “The tragic event will have serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations.” Putin said the plane fell in Syrian territory four kilometres from the border and “did not in any way threaten Turkey”.
The Turkish army said the downing took place over the Yayladagi district of Hatay province on the border with Syria. “The plane violated Turkish air space 10 times in five minutes despite warnings,” it said in a statement, adding that it was shot down at 0724 GMT “according to the rules of engagement”. Its version was backed up by the US military which said Turkish pilots had issued 10 warnings without response.
Russia summoned the Turkish military attache in Moscow while Ankara summoned Moscow’s charge d’affaires to the foreign ministry. “Everyone must know that it is our international right and national duty to take any measure against whoever violates our air or land borders,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
CNN-Turk television said Syrian Turkmen forces fighting the Damascus regime had captured one of the pilots while Syrian opposition sources told AFP one had been killed by rebels and the second was missing. Turkey’s Dogan news agency broadcast footage of what it said was Russian helicopters flying over Syrian territory in an apparent search for the lost men. Several videos circulating online and shared on opposition social media sites purported to show the dead pilot surrounded by rebels from different factions.
Fadi Ahmed, a spokesman for the First Coastal Front rebel group, said “the Russian pilot was killed by gunfire as he fell with his parachute” in the Jabal Turkman area of Latakia province on the coast. “The 10th Brigade (rebel group) transferred the body of the dead Russian to the local rebel joint operations room,” added Omar Jablawi, a media activist working with rebels in the area. He declined to specify exactly where the joint operations room was located.
Also online, opposition and rebel accounts on Twitter and Facebook circulated several videos depicting from several angles the man said to be the dead Russian pilot. In them, a man can been seen in military uniform with straps across his chest and blood on his face. Rebels refer to the man as a “Russian pilot” and “Russian pig”, but the location of the footage was not specified and it was impossible to verify the videos.
The incident came as Russian and Syrian jets are waging a heavy bombing campaign against targets in northern Syria while the US-led coalition continues its own air strikes. Turkey has expressed anger at the operation, saying it is aimed at buttressing the Syrian regime and has displaced thousands of Turkmen Syrians, an ethnic minority in the area and strong allies of Ankara. Russia however insists its strikes are aimed against Islamic State jihadists. European Union President Donald Tusk warned of a “dangerous moment”, saying “all should remain cool headed and calm.”
At Ankara’s request, NATO allies will hold an “extraordinary” meeting to discuss the incident. “NATO is monitoring the situation closely. We are in contact with Turkish authorities,” an alliance official said. Russian fighter jets entered Turkish airspace in two separate incidents in October, prompting Ankara to summon the Russian ambassador twice in protest.
Turkey and Russia have long been at loggerheads over the Syrian conflict, with Ankara seeking Assad’s overthrow while Moscow does everything to keep him in power. The Turkish military in October also shot down a Russian-made drone that had entered its airspace. But Moscow denied the drone belonged to its forces. It remains to be seen what action Turkey could call for at NATO. Turkey in July invoked NATO’s rarely-used article four – which allows any member to request a meeting of all 28 NATO ambassadors – over its campaign against Kurdish rebels.
As well as cancelling his visit to Turkey, Lavrov warned Russian citizens against travel to the country, which would be a huge blow for the Turkish tourism industry. He said the risk of attacks “is no less of a threat than in Egypt” where all 224 people on board a Russian plane where killed in October in an attack claimed by IS. – Agencies