Ankara: Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane it said had crossed into its territory from Syria today, killing at least one of the two pilots and marking the first time in half a century that a NATO member has downed a Russian plane.
The long-feared incident highlighted the growing complexity of Syria’s civil war, as multiple groups with clashing alliances fight on the ground and the sky is crowded with aircraft bombing various targets. It immediately prompted fierce reaction from Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called Turkey’s action a “stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices” and warned of “significant consequences,” while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled a trip to Turkey which had been planned for Wednesday.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on all parties to be prudent and to contribute to reducing tensions.
“As we have repeatedly made clear we stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally, Turkey,” Stoltenberg told a news conference after an extraordinary meeting of the alliance’s decision-making North Atlantic Council, called at Turkey’s request.
He called for “calm and de-escalation, and renewed contacts between Moscow and Ankara.
Turkey said two SU-24 planes ignored several warnings that they were nearing, and then intruding into, Turkish airspace.
In a letter to the UN Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, obtained today by The Associated Press, it said the planes disregarded warnings and violated Turkish airspace “to a depth of 1.36 miles and 1.15 miles in length for 17 seconds” just after 9:24 a.M.
It said one of the planes then left Turkish airspace and the other one was fired at by Turkish F-16s “in accordance with the rules of engagement” and crashed on the Syrian side of the border.
Russia insisted the plane stayed over Syria, where it was supporting ground action by Syrian troops against rebels. Rebel forces fired at the two parachuting pilots as they descended, and one died, said Jahed Ahmad, a spokesman for the 10th Coast Division rebel group. The fate of the second pilot was not immediately known.
Later today, Russia’s military said that one of two of its helicopters that were searching for the jet’s crew in Syria was shot down by rebel fire and one serviceman was killed. The rest of its crew were evacuated and taken back to the air base used by Russia in Syria.