Turkey shoots down Russian jet; Syrian rebels claim killing of pilot


Beirut/Brussels (dpa) – Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Turkey of stabbing Russia in the back after its air force shot down a Russian fighter plane near the border with Syria on Tuesday.

“Today’s loss is linked with a stab in our back delivered by terrorism accomplices,” Putin said during a meeting in Sochi with Jordan’s King Abdullah to discuss the crisis in Syria and efforts against the Islamic State extremist organization.

Russia “shall never tolerate crimes like today’s one,” Putin said in comments reported by the official TASS news agency.

The Russian military said that the Sukhoi Su-24 bomber was over Syrian territory at all points during its mission. Turkey said that the jet was fired upon after violating Turkish airspace and ignoring repeated warnings.

Syrian rebels claimed to have killed one of the two crew members after he ejected and tried to direct his parachute towards government-held territory in Latakia province. The fate of the second crewman was unclear.

“Our men of the Tenth Coastal Brigade machine gun company were able to hit him before he got away and his corpse fell in the liberated area,” said Jabir Ahmad, spokesman of the Tenth Coastal Brigade, in a Facebook message to dpa.

Videos posted on social media appeared to show rebels surrounding the body of what they said was a Russian pilot.

Analyst Charles Lister wrote on Twitter that the Tenth Coastal Brigade is a Free Syrian Army group “with logistical links to the US-Saudi-Turkey backed ‘MOM’ operations room” which coordinates support for moderate rebel forces.

Ahmad said the plane crashed near the Jabal Zahieh area. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, says that rebels and the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda have made gains against government forces there in recent days.

The Russian Defence Ministry summoned Turkey’s military attache, TASS reported, while Turkey called in the Russian military attache in Ankara, according to the Turkish Anadolu news agency.

The NATO military alliance was due to meet in a special session on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the incident, at the request of Turkey which is a member state.

“The aim of this extraordinary … meeting is for Turkey to inform allies about the downing of a Russian airplane,” NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said.

“NATO is monitoring the situation closely. We are in close contact with Turkish authorities,” she added.

Putin slammed the Turkish call for a NATO meeting, saying the Russian plane posed no threat to Turkey and was involved in action against Islamic State.

“So, does this mean that they want NATO to serve the Islamic State?” he asked.

“We will certainly carefully analyse what has happened and today’s tragic event will have serious consequences to Russian-Turkish relations,” the Russian leader said.

Russia says its intervention in Syria is aimed at Islamic State and other extremist groups. Islamic State is not present in the area where the plane was shot down, which is dominated by moderate rebels and the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.

According to the Turkish military’s general staff, a plane of unknown nationality was challenged after breaching Turkish airspace at 9:20 am (0720 GMT).

The plane “was alerted 10 times in five minutes” before two Turkish F-16 fighters “intervened” at 9:24 am and brought it down in north-western Syria, the general staff said in a statement reported by Anadolu.

The Russian Defence Ministry said the plane had been flying at 6,000 metres and was over Syrian territory throughout its flight as “registered by objective monitoring data.”

It was returning to the Humeimim airbase at the time of the incident, the ministry said.

Turkey has previously warned Russia against incursions into its airspace during its operations against Syrian rebel forces and Islamist extremists.

Ankara backs Syrian rebels, while Moscow in September launched an air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s overstretched forces.

The Observatory, which monitors the conflict through a network of local activists, reported that Russian helicopters were searching the area where the plane came down.

One helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in government-held territory after being hit by rebel fire, the monitoring group said.