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Russia says jet downing ‘provocation’ ; Pilot denies warning – Ankara seeks to ease tensions – Moscow sends missiles to Syria

MOSCOW: Protesters hold placards and shout slogans as they take part in an anti-Turkey picket outside the Turkish embassy yesterday. — AFP
MOSCOW: Protesters hold placards and shout slogans as they take part in an anti-Turkey picket outside the Turkish embassy yesterday. — AFP

MOSCOW: Russia yesterday accused Turkey of a “planned provocation” over the downing of a warplane on the Syrian border as a rescued pilot claimed that no warning had been given. As the diplomatic fallout from Tuesday’s incident raged on, Ankara sought to play down tensions and its allies in NATO issued urgent appeals for restraint. Moscow said Russian and Syrian special forces had rescued one of the two pilots who ejected from the bomber as it plunged to the earth in a fireball but confirmed the second airman and a soldier sent to rescue him died.

In his first interview, rescued pilot Konstantin Murakhtin told Russian state media there had been no warning before his plane was shot down by Turkish fighter jets. “There was no warning, not by radio exchange nor visually. There was no contact at all,” Murakhtin said at Moscow’s base in Syria, with his back to the cameras. Turkey insists it gave 10 warnings in the space of five minutes, an account backed up by its NATO ally the United States which spearheads a coalition against Islamic State jihadists in Syria.

The downing has threatened ties between two major rival players in the Syrian war and raised fears it could escalate into a wider geopolitical conflict. “We have serious doubts about this being an unpremeditated act, it really looks like a planned provocation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters after speaking to Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu by phone in the first contact between the two over the incident.

“We do not plan to go to war with Turkey, our attitude toward the Turkish people has not changed,” he added, but warned Moscow would “seriously reevaluate” relations with Ankara. President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday branded the incident a “stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists”, and told Russians not to to visit Turkey, a key tourist destination.

‘Friend and Neighbor’

Turkey, however, has sought to turn down the heat, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisting Ankara was simply defending its border. “We have no intention to escalate this incident. We are just defending our security and the rights of our brothers,” Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called Russia “our friend and our neighbour” and said Ankara did not want to further strain ties.

Turkey says the Su-24 bomber violated its airspace 10 times within a five-minute period, despite warnings each time. Turkey’s ambassador to the UN Halit Cevik said in a letter to the Security Council that two planes were involved. He said both had flown 1.36 miles (2.19 km) into Turkish airspace for 17 seconds in a final violation at 0724 GMT and that one was shot down while the other left Turkish airspace.

According to a recording of the communications aired in the Turkish media: the Turks said: “This is Turkish air force speaking – on guard. You’re approaching Turkish airspace.” But Russia insists the plane never strayed from Syrian territory. The shooting also risks derailing efforts to bring peace to Syria that were gaining tentative momentum following the Nov 13 Paris attacks claimed by Islamic State extremists who control swathes of northern Syria. French President Francois Hollande flies to Moscow today to meet Putin, with both struggling to make good on demands for a broader coalition to fight IS. Lavrov backed a call by Hollande to close the Turkey-Syria border to stem the flow of jihadist fighters.

Moscow Sends Missile System

Ankara and Moscow are already on starkly opposing sides in the four-year Syrian civil war, with Turkey wanting to see the ouster of President Bashar Al-Assad while Russia is one of his last remaining allies. Assad’s other key ally Iran also slammed Ankara. Turkey’s behaviour “sends the wrong message to the terrorists” in Syria, its Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Lavrov.

In an apparent response to Turkey’s action, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow would send its most hi-tech S-400 air defence system to its airbase in Syria. The Moskva guided missile cruiser will be stationed near the Syrian Mediterranean port of Latakia, the defence ministry said. There has been fears of such a mid-air incident since Russia launched air strikes in Syria in September, to the consternation of nations already involved in the US-led coalition. Turkey had protested that Russia’s campaign was aimed at hitting Syrian rebels and buttressing the Assad regime rather than hurting IS jihadists.

Putin said Murakhtin would be given a medal, along with those involved in the rescue operation and the second pilot who was shot dead by rebels after parachuting out. Russia said another soldier had been killed in a first failed bid to rescue the pair. In Moscow several hundred activists hurled stones and eggs at Turkey’s embassy and brandished anti-Turkish placards in a brief protest over the jet downing. Europe’s main stock markets rebounded from losses Tuesday over the downing, but the spiking geopolitical tensions continued to dominate investor sentiment. – AFP

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