Putin: Turkey stabbed Russia in back by downing jet

Irate president says act perpetrated by ‘accomplices of terrorists’; NATO calls meeting on Syria border incident

Russian President Vladimir Putin sits down as Turkey's then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks on before a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, December 3, 2012. (AP/Tolga Bozoglu, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin sits down as Turkey's then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks on before a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, December 3, 2012. (AP/Tolga Bozoglu, Pool)

President Vladimir Putin lashed out furiously at Turkey on Tuesday for downing a Russian warplane along the Syrian border, calling the action a betrayal.

The shooting down of the fighter plane was “a stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists,” Putin said at a meeting with Jordanian King Abdullah II in Moscow. “I cannot call what happened today anything else.”

The North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing body, called a meeting requested by alliance member Turkey. “The aim of this extraordinary NAC meeting is for Turkey to inform allies about the downing of a Russian airplane,” said Carmen Romero, NATO’s deputy spokesperson.

Turkey shot down the warplane earlier Tuesday, claiming it had violated Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings. Russia denied that the plane crossed the Syrian border into Turkish skies.

A Russian jet plunges to the ground after being shot down by Turkey near the border with Syria on November 24, 2015. (screen capture: Anadolu Agency)
A Russian jet plunges to the ground after being shot down by Turkey near the border with Syria on November 24, 2015. (screen capture: Anadolu Agency)

“We are looking into the circumstances of the crash of the Russian jet,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said. “The Ministry of Defense would like to stress that the plane was over the Syrian territory throughout the flight.”

Russia said the Su-24 was downed by artillery fire, but Turkey claimed that its F-16s fired on the Russian plane after it ignored repeated warnings. The ministry said the pilots parachuted, but added that Moscow had no further contact with them.

Video footage of the incident showed a warplane on fire before crashing on a hill and two crew members apparently parachuting safely.

Jahed Ahmad, a spokesman the 10th Coast Division, an insurgent group in Syria, said its forces fired at the Russian pilots as they descended. One was dead when he reached the ground, Ahmad told The Associated Press.

The group released a video showing gunmen standing around an apparently dead blond man with a bruised face and clad in aviator gear.

The fate of the second pilot was unknown.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said nothing about the incident at a ceremony to approve new cabinet members.

Turkey’s privately owned Dogan news agency said two Russian helicopters, flying low over the Turkmen Bayirbucak region, searched for the two pilots.

“This isn’t an action against any specific country. Our F-16s took the necessary steps to defend Turkey’s sovereign territory,” a Turkish official said in an email. The official cannot be named because of government rules that bar civil servants from speaking to journalists without authorization.

The official said the Russian plane was first warned that it was within 15 kilometers (10 miles) of the Turkish border, and the aircraft then crossed over Turkish territory.

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.

A Turkish military statement said the plane entered Turkish airspace over the town of Yayladagi, in Hatay province.

“On Nov. 24, 2015 at around 09.20 a.m., a plane whose nationality is not known violated the Turkish airspace despite several warnings in the area of Yayladagi, Hatay,” the military said before the plane’s nationality was confirmed.

“Two F-16 planes on aerial patrol duty in the area intervened against the plane in question in accordance with the rules of engagement at 09.24 a.m.”

It said the plane was warned 10 times within the space of five minutes.

“It’s the kind of thing we’re been warning about,” said Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network think-tank in London. “And it’s a direct military engagement between a NATO country and Russia, so I think it’s a serious incident in anybody’s book.”

On Friday, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador demanding that Russia cease operations in Syria targeting Turkmen villages, saying the Russian actions did not “constitute a fight against terrorism” but the bombing of civilians. Ambassador Andrey Karlov was warned during the meeting that the Russian operations could lead to serious consequences, the ministry said.

Syrian troops have been on the offensive in the area that is 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.

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the warplane crashed in the Turkmen Mountains region in the coastal province of Latakia.

The Turkmen Mountains region has been subjected to a government offensive in recent days under the cover of Russian airstrikes.

Three Russian journalists working in Latakia province suffered minor injuries when a missile landed near their car on Monday, Russia’s Defense 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.

The European Command said the deployment was “in response to the government of Turkey’s request for support in securing the sovereignty of Turkish airspace.”

In October, NATO’s governing body, the North Atlantic Council, had warned Moscow it was courting “extreme danger” by sending planes into Turkish air space.

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