Turkmen rebels say they killed both pilots in downed Russian plane

Airmen were shot as they were ‘landing with parachutes,’ commander says; claims to have the bodies

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)

Turkmen rebels in Syria are claiming they shot two Russian pilots who ejected over the war-torn country after their jet was shot down by Turkish forces, the Dogun news agency reported.

“We shot the pilots while they were landing with parachutes. Their bodies are here,” Turkmen Deputy Commander to the 2nd Coast Division Alpaslan Çelik told the news agency.

The Turkmen, an ethnic Turkish group, have lived in the Syria, Iran and Iraq region for centuries. They are allied to the opposition forces fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Earlier, anti-Assad rebels said they had killed one pilot as he parachuted to the ground, but the fate of the second person in the plane was unknown.

Turkey shot down the 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,” while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled a visit to Turkey which had been planned for Wednesday.

The US military on Tuesday backed up Turkey’s claim that Turkish pilots had warned a Russian jet 10 times — but failed to get a response — before shooting it down.

“We were able to hear everything that was going on, these (communications) were on open channels,” US military spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said.

Asked if he could confirm reports 10 warnings were issued by Turkish pilots without response, Warren said: “I can confirm that, yes.” He added it was not immediately clear on which side of the Turkish-Syrian border the Russian jet had been flying.

At Turkey’s request, NATO’s governing body called an emergency meeting.

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.”

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.

The Turkmen rebels said they fired at the two parachuting pilots as they descended. A spokesman for the group said they would consider releasing a body in exchange for prisoners held by Syria.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry on Tuesday invited diplomats from the five UN Security Council member countries for a meeting to brief them about the incident. Separately, the Russian charge 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 Assad were straying across the border — a complaint repeated to the Russian ambassador only last Friday.

Turkey and Russia have long been at odds over the crisis in Syria. Turkey has been concerned over Russia’s bombing of Turkmen areas and the fact that the Russian operations have complicated the possibility of creating a safe zone in northern Syria to protect civilians as well as moderate rebels fighting Assad. The creation of a safe zone has been a long-term Turkish goal.

Turkey has long been seeking the ouster of Assad — an important Russian ally.

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.

Jahed Ahmad, a spokesman 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.

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.

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