Vladimir Putin slams Turkey for shooting down Russian warplane near Syrian border
Syria rebels say they shot, killed both pilots
Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane Tuesday — a long-feared crisis in Syria's civil war and apparently the first time a NATO member has downed a Russian plane in a half-century.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called Turkey's action a "stab in the back by the terrorists' accomplices" and warned of "significant consequences." Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled a visit to Turkey which had been planned for Wednesday.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted his country has the right to take "all kinds of measures" against border violations, and called on the international community to work toward "extinguishing the fire that is burning in Syria."
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Turkey said the Su-24 ignored several warnings that it was nearing, then intruding, into Turkish airspace. Russia insisted the plane stayed over Syria, where it was supporting ground action against rebels.
"We will never tolerate such atrocities as happened today and we hope that the international community will find the strength to join forces and fight this evil," Putin said.
Speaking at the White House in a joint news conference, U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande urged Russia and Turkey to avoid any escalation.
"Turkey, like every country, has the right to defend its territory and its airspace," Obama said.
"It's very important right now for us to make sure that both the Russians and the Turks are talking to each other to find out exactly what happened and take measures to discourage any kind of escalation," Obama said.
Hollande said, "We must prevent an escalation. That would be extremely damaging."
Dropped a bomb
Turkey's private Dogan news agency is quoting a Turkmen commander as saying Turkey brought down the Russian plane after it had dropped a bomb in a Turkmen region of Syria and entered Turkish airspace.
The fighter, who was identified as Alpaslan Celik, the second-in-command of the Turkmen Coastal Division, said the Turkmen forces had re-captured a Turkmen mountain region from Syrian forces.
Celik also said the rebels shot and killed both Russian pilots who parachuted from the plane after it was shot down.
The rebels had previously said they killed one of the two pilots and were searching for the second one. The AP couldn't immediately confirm the claim that both pilots were dead.
Despite harsh words, some analysts believe that Russia and Turkey have reasons not to let the incident escalate.
"Relations have been very strained between Russia and Turkey of late so Moscow will be trying its utmost to contain the damage this might cause," said Natasha Kuhrt, lecturer in International Peace and Security at King's College London.
"It's a serious incident in anybody's book," added Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, a London think-tank.
But Kearns said the Russian-Turkish economic relationship, including in the energy field, is important to Moscow. And Russia and the West appeared to be moving toward an understanding of their common strategic interest in eradicating the Islamic State group following the bombing of a Russian airliner over Sinai and the attacks in Paris.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry invited diplomats from the five UN Security Council member countries for a meeting to brief them about the incident. Separately, the Russian chargé d'affaires was also invited for a meeting during which Turkey "conveyed its sensitivities" over border violations.
Turkey has complained repeatedly that Russian planes supporting Syrian President Basher Assad were straying across the border — a complaint repeated to the Russian ambassador only last Friday.
The Russian plane was supporting Syrian troops which have been on the offensive in an area controlled by several insurgent groups including al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, and the 2nd Coastal Division and the 10th Coast Division that includes local Turkmen fighters. The Turkmen are Syrians of Turkish ethinicity who have lived in Syria since Ottoman times.
Jahed Ahmad, a spokesman for the 10th Coast Division, said its forces fired at the Russian pilots as they descended. One died, Ahmad told The Associated Press.
A Turkish military statement said the plane entered Turkish airspace over the town of Yayladagi, in Hatay province.
Turkish officials released what they said was the radar image of the path the Russian plane took, showing it flying across a stretch of Turkish territory in Turkey's southern-most tip, in the region of Yayladag, in Hatay province.
Three Russian journalists working in Syria suffered minor injuries when a missile landed near their car on Monday, Russia's Defence Ministry said. They were being treated in a military hospital.
Last month, Turkish jets shot down an unidentified drone that it said had violated Turkey's airspace.
Turkey changed its rules of engagement a few years ago after Syria shot down a Turkish plane. According to the new rules, Turkey said it would consider all "elements" approaching from Syria an enemy threat and would act accordingly.
Following earlier accusations of Russian intrusion into Turkish airspace, the U.S. European Command on Nov. 6 deployed six U.S. Air Force F-15 fighters from their base in Britain to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to help the NATO-member country secure its skies.
Sarah Lain, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said the last time she could remember a NATO member country —the United States — shooting down a Russian/Soviet plane was the 1950s. "But the Soviets appear to have shot down more U.S. planes amid the Cold War," she added.
with files from Reuters