Turkey seeks to ease tensions after downing of Russian warplane

AFP , Wednesday 25 Nov 2015

A war plane crashing in flames in a mountainous area in northern Syria after it was shot down by Turkish fighter jets near the Turkish-Syrian border, is seen in this still image taken from video November 24 (Reuters)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to play down tensions with Russia Wednesday after Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane on the Syria border sparked fears among NATO allies of a wider conflict.

Turkey's NATO allies on Wednesday called for a rapid de-escalation in tensions between Ankara and Moscow.

Moscow said Russian and Syrian Special Forces had rescued one of the pilots who ejected from the plane after being shot down early Tuesday but confirmed another was dead, in an incident that threatens to damage relations between two rival players in the Syrian conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted furiously to what he described as a "stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists", recommending that Russians do not visit Turkey, a key tourist destination.

Turkey said the Russian Su-24 warplane had violated its airspace 10 times within a five-minute period, but Russia insisted it had never strayed from Syrian territory.

The shooting also risks derailing efforts to bring peace to Syria that were gaining tentative momentum following the November 13 Paris attacks claimed by ISIS militants who control swathes of northern Syria.

Erdogan vowed to always defend Turkish borders but appeared to want to avoid provoking further one of the biggest crises between Russia and a NATO member in recent years.

"We have no intention to escalate this incident. We are just defending our security and the rights of our brothers," Erdogan said in a televised speech in Istanbul.

US President Barack Obama said Washington's NATO ally Turkey had a right to defend its airspace but said his priority was to make sure the standoff did not escalate.

"Hopefully, this is a moment in which all parties can step back and make a determination as to how their interests are best served," Obama said.

Erdogan and Obama agreed on the need to reduce tensions and prevent a repeat of similar incidents in a phone call late Tuesday, the Turkish presidency said.

Following an extraordinary meeting of the alliance called by Ankara, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said "diplomacy and de-escalation are important to resolve this situation," he said.

The Turkish ambassador to the United Nations Halit Cevik said in a letter to the Security Council that two planes were involved, one of which was shot down while the other left Turkish airspace.

He said both planes had flown 1.36 miles (2.19 kilometres) into Turkish airspace for 17 seconds from 0724 GMT Tuesday.

Ankara and Moscow are already on starkly opposing sides in the over four-year Syrian civil war, with Turkey wanting to see the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad but Russia one of his last remaining allies.

Assad's other key ally Iran also slammed Ankara's behaviour. Turkey's behaviour "sends the wrong message to the terrorists" in Syria, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

In apparent response to Turkey's move, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow would be sending its most hi-tech S-400 air defence system to its airbase in Syria.

Russia's Moskva guided missile cruiser will now be stationed near the Syrian Mediterranean port of Latakia, the defence ministry said.

As well as cancelling a visit to Turkey planned for Wednesday, Lavrov warned Russians against travel to the country, which would be a huge blow for the Turkish tourism industry.

Putin Wednesday backed the recommendation as a "necessary measure".

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accused Turkey of "practically protecting Islamic State (ISIS) militants", even accusing Turkish officials of benefitting from trade with the jihadists.

There had 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 a US-led anti-ISIS coalition.

Turkey had bitterly condemned Russia's campaign, saying it was aimed at hitting Syrian rebels and buttressing the Assad regime rather than hurting ISIS  militants.

Two Russian pilots were seen on images parachuting to the ground after the shooting down but their fate risked creating further tensions.

Russian military spokesman General Sergei Rudskoi said one had been killed by fire from the ground while Shoigu said the other had been freed by Russian and Syrian special forces and is now at a Russian airbase.

Rudskoi said another soldier had been killed in a failed bid to rescue the pair after one of his squadron's helicopters was damaged by gunfire and had to land. The other members of the squad were successfully evacuated.

Turkey's pro-government press applauded the shooting down, with Ilnur Cevik in Daily Sabah saying the Russian incursion was "the last drop for Turkey to break its silence towards Russia's violence in the region".

However columnist Mehmet Yilmaz in the mainstream Hurriyet daily accused Erdogan of plunging Turkey into a "quagmire", warning of "grave political and economic consequences for Turkey".

The repercussions of the incident also affected global markets with oil prices turning higher and stocks down, with shares in airlines and travel firms particularly hit.

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