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Turkey downs Russian warplane near Syria

Turkish sources said the plane was downed in line with Turkey's rules of engagement after violating Ankara's airspace

Published: Updated:

Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday after repeated warnings over air space violations, but Moscow said it could prove the jet had not left Syrian air space.

A Russian military general staff said one of the two pilots were killed, according to Reuters. A Russian military general staff said one of the two pilots were killed, according to Reuters.

A U.S. military spokesman confirmed that Turkey warned the Russian pilots repeatedly before shoot down, but they did not respond, Reuters news agency reported.

“We were able to hear everything that was going on, these (communications) were on open channels,” U.S. 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.

President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday branded the downing a “stab in the back” committed by “accomplices of terrorists.”

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. “I cannot call what happened today anything else.”

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Tuesday that Turkey had a duty to act against anyone violating its borders.

“Everyone must know that it is our international right and national duty to take any measure against whoever violates our air or land borders,” Davutoglu said in Ankara.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the conflict through a network of activists on the ground, said a rebel group claimed the downing of the helicopter using an anti-tank missile.

Nato calls for 'cool-headedness'

It was the first time a NATO member’s armed forces have downed a Russian or Soviet military aircraft since the 1950s and Russian and Turkish assets fell on fears of an escalation between the former Cold War enemies.

NATO ambassadors called on Ankara to show “cool-headedness” on Tuesday following an emergency meeting in Brussels, diplomats said.

Diplomats present at the meeting told Reuters that while none of the 28 NATO envoys defended Russia's actions, many expressed concern that Turkey did not escort the Russian warplane out of its airspace.

“There are other ways of dealing with these kinds of incidents,” said one diplomat who declined to be named.

A Kremlin spokesman said it was a “very serious incident” but that it was too early to draw conclusions.

Footage from private Turkish broadcaster Haberturk TV showed the warplane going down in flames in a woodland area, a long plume of smoke trailing behind it. The plane went down in area known by Turks as “Turkmen Mountain”, it said.

Separate footage from Turkey’s Anadolu Agency showed two pilots parachuting out of the jet before it crashed.

Russia’s defense ministry said one of its Su-24 fighter jets had been downed in Syria and that, according to preliminary information, the pilots were able to eject. It said the aircraft had been over Syria for the duration of its flight.

The Turkish military said the aircraft had been warned 10 times in the space of five minutes about violating Turkish airspace. Officials said a second plane had also approached the border and been warned.

“The data we have is very clear. There were two planes approaching our border, we warned them as they were getting too close,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters.

“We warned them to avoid entering Turkish airspace before they did, and we warned them many times. Our findings show clearly that Turkish airspace was violated multiple times. And they violated it knowingly,” the official said.

Search for pilots

Russia’s unilateral decision to launch air strikes in Syria mean Russian and NATO planes have been flying combat missions in the same air space for the first time since World War Two, targeting various insurgent groups close to Turkish borders.

Russia’s main stock index fell more than two percent, while Turkish stocks fell 1.3 percent. Both the rouble and lira were weaker.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was briefed by the head of the military, while Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu ordered consultations with NATO, the United Nations and related countries, their respective offices said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the warplane crashed in a mountainous area in the northern countryside of Latakia province, where there had been aerial bombardment earlier and where pro-government forces have been battling insurgents on the ground.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has beheaded foreign captives in the past, is not known to have a presence there.

One of the pilots was in the hands of Turkmen forces in Syria who were looking for the other one, broadcaster CNN Turk reported, citing local sources. Russian military helicopters were also searching for the pilots, Turkey’s Dogan news agency reported.

Both Russia and its ally, Syria’s government, have carried out strikes in the area. A Syrian military source said the reported downing was being investigated.

Turkey called this week for a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss attacks on Turkmens in neighboring Syria, and last week Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador to protest the bombing of their villages.

Ankara has traditionally expressed solidarity with Syrian Turkmens, who are Syrians of Turkish descent.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due to visit Turkey on Wednesday to discuss Syria, in a trip arranged before this incident. Erdogan is meanwhile expected to visit Russia for talks with Putin in late December.

About 1,700 people have fled the mountainous Syrian area near to the Turkish border as a result of fighting in the last three days, a Turkish official said on Monday. Russian jets have bombed the area in support of ground operations by Syrian government forces.