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Tensions soar as Turkey shoots down Russian plane

Updated November 25, 2015
A woman holds a poster as she pickets the Turkish Embassy in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. —AP
A woman holds a poster as she pickets the Turkish Embassy in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. —AP

ANKARA: Turkey's Nato allies on Wednesday called for a rapid de-escalation in tensions between Ankara and Moscow while China has also called for more coordination in the fight against terrorism after Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian war plane on the Syrian border, sparking fears of a wider conflict.

Tuesday's incident is one of the most serious clashes between a Nato member country and Russia to have taken place for half a century.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also said his country does not wish to escalate tensions with Russia over the downing of the plane.

Speaking at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation economy meeting in Istanbul, Erdogan said Wednesday that Turkey favors “peace, dialogue and diplomacy.”

Erdogan however defended his country's move to shoot down the plane saying “no one should expect Turkey to stay silent to border violations or the violation of its rights.”

Turkey said the Russian warplane was shot down on Tuesday after it ignored repeated warnings and crossed into its airspace from Syria.

Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg earlier said the military alliance stood by member Turkey after the incident, but echoed appeals for calm from other world leaders as fears grow of clashes between coalition and Russian planes in the skies over Syria.

“We stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our Nato ally, Turkey,” Stoltenberg said after an emergency meeting of all 28 members requested by Ankara.

“Diplomacy and de-escalation are important to resolve this situation," added.

Turkey's military said the fighter was shot down by two of its F-16s after it violated Turkish airspace 10 times within a five-minute period.

The Turkish Ambassador to the United Nations Halit Cevik said in a letter to the Security Council that two Russian planes had flown a little more than a mile into Turkish airspace for 17 seconds.

But Moscow bitterly criticised Turkey for downing the Su-24 plane, which it insisted was in Syrian airspace, and claimed that one of the two pilots who ejected from the craft was killed by gunfire from the ground as he descended.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says a second pilot from a Russian warplane that was shot down by Turkey near the Syrian border has been rescued.

Putin was speaking in televised comments on Wednesday after Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Russian news agencies that the man was rescued in a 12-hour operation which ended in the early hours on Wednesday and is now “safe and sound” at Russia's air base in the government-controlled area in Syria.

The Russian president has also backed a recommendation from the foreign ministry for Russians not to visit Turkey.

“After such tragic events like the destruction of our plane and the death of our pilot, this is a necessary measure,” Putin said in televised comments.

The Russian president said Turkey's political leaders had been encouraging the Islamisation of Turkish society, something he said was a problem, Russian agencies quoted him as saying.

“The problem is not the tragedy we witnessed yesterday,” the TASS news agency quoted Putin as saying. “The problem is much deeper. We observe ... that the current Turkish leadership over a significant number of years has been pursuing a deliberate policy of supporting the Islamisation of their country.”

Putin had earlier branded the shooting down of the aircraft a “stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists”, warning: “The tragic event will have serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations."

Russia to deploy anti-aircraft missile systems in Syria

Russia's defense minister says that Moscow will send its news anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.

Russian news agencies on Wednesday quoted Sergei Shoigu as saying that the S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems would be sent to the Hemeimeem air base in the government-controlled area which Moscow uses for its Air Force sorties.

S-400s were first put on active combat duty in Russia in 2007.

Meanwhile, Russian President Putin has said that an S-300 air defence system would be sent to Russia's air base in Syria, Interfax and other agencies reported.

Know more: Downing of Russian plane is a 'stab in the back' from Turkey, says Putin

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov scrapped a planned visit to Turkey Wednesday, and warned Russians against travelling to Turkey.

He said the risk of attacks “is no less of a threat than in Egypt,” where all 224 people onboard a Russian passenger jet were killed in October in an attack claimed by the militant Islamic State (IS).

Russia's Moskva guided missile cruiser will now be stationed near Latakia, on Syria's Mediterranean border, and all bombers in Syria will now be escorted by fighters, Russian military spokesman General Sergei Rudskoi said, adding the shooting down would have the “the gravest consequences”.

“All targets representing a potential threat to us will be destroyed,” he warned.

'Flagrant aggression'

While Russia and Turkey have traded barbs before over alleged incursions by Russian fighters into Turkish airspace during forays over Syria, this is the first time Turkey has shot down any Russian planes since Moscow started airstrikes in September.

Moscow's decision to launch separate air strikes in Syria means Russian and Nato planes have been flying combat missions in the same air space for the first time since World War Two, targeting various insurgent groups close to the Turkish border.

Tuesday's incident has sparked concern in the West it could escalate into clashes between Russian and other members of the US-led coalition, which include Turkey, during their separate campaigns to target jihadists in Syria.

It also risks derailing efforts to bring peace to Syria that were gaining tentative momentum following the November 13 Paris terror attacks, claimed by militants from the IS group, which controls swathes of northern Syria.

Damascus, an ally of Moscow, denounced the incident as “flagrant aggression” against Syrian sovereignty.

A US military spokesman in Baghdad confirmed Turkey had warned the Russian jet 10 times, without response, before shooting it down but said it was not immediately clear on which side of the border the jet had been flying.

US President Barack Obama called for calm, saying his top priority “is going to be to ensure that this does not escalate”.

He echoed that sentiment in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office said Obama had also backed Ankara's right to defend the country's sovereignty.

Jet 'no threat to Turkey'

Putin said the plane fell in Syrian territory four kilometres from the border and “did not in any way threaten Turkey”, though Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan said the jet had been fired at while in Turkish air space but had crashed inside Syria.

The incident comes as Russian and Syrian jets wage a heavy bombing campaign against targets in northern Syria.

Turkey has expressed anger at the operation, saying it is aimed at buttressing the Assad regime and has displaced thousands of Turkmen Syrians, an ethnic minority in the area and strong allies of Ankara.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a “credible and thorough review” of the incident to establish what happened and ensure it does not happen again.

Meanwhile, the fate of the second pilot in the plane remained unclear.

Turkish television pictures showed the Su-24 exploding and crashing in a ball of flames into a Syrian mountain and two pilots parachuting to the ground after ejecting.

A Turkish government official insisted both pilots were still alive, but Russian military spokesman Rudskoi said one was killed by fire from the ground after he ejected from the craft.

Rudskoi added a Russian soldier had also been killed in a failed bid to rescue the pilots when a Mi-8 helicopter was “damaged by gunfire and had to land”.

China urges stronger coordination in Syria

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China was paying close attention to the incident and that many circumstances “needed further clarification”.

“China supports the international fight against terrorism, and we hope all sides strengthen their communication and coordination,” Hong told a regular press briefing.

While relying on the region for oil supplies, China tends to leave Middle Eastern diplomacy to the other five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely the United States, Britain, France and Russia.

However, China has long said there is no military solution to Syria's problems and has criticised the West and Russia for bombing campaigns there.

The incident appeared to scupper hopes of a rapprochement between Russia and the West in the wake of the militant Islamic State group's attacks in Paris, which had led to calls for a united front against the jihadist group in Syria.