Putin rages as Tur­key downs Rus­sian plane

Rebels ‘kill’ pi­lots, blow up res­cue chop­per

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

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 an­ti­tank 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 Rus­sianTurk­ish 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

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