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Turkey Shoots Down Russian Warplane Near Syria Border

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ISTANBUL: Turkish fighter jets on patrol near the Syrian border Tuesday shot down a Russian warplane that Turkey said had violated its airspace, a long-feared escalation that could further strain relations between Russia and the West.

The Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, ordered the Foreign Ministry to consult with NATO and the United Nations over this episode, his office said in a statement, without elaborating. NATO announced that it would hold an emergency meeting Tuesday in Brussels to discuss the episode.

In his first remarks on the incident, President Vladimir Putin of Russia confirmed that an F-16 Turkish fighter jet had shot down the Russian plane, a Sukhoi Su-24, with an air-to-air missile. But he insisted that the Russian jet had been in Syrian airspace at the time and had never threatened Turkey’s territory.

Putin, speaking slowly and clearly angry before a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan in Sochi, Russia, said the episode would have “serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations” but did not elaborate. He called the shooting down of the Russian jet a “stab in the back” by those who “abet” terrorism, and he accused Turkey of aiding the Islamic State by helping it sell its oil.

Putin said he found it suspicious that Turkey had reached out to its NATO allies after the episode but not to Moscow. He nevertheless insisted the situation should encourage more cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

As Putin spoke, credible reports were emerging from rebel forces in Latakia province, where the Russian jet went down, that rebels possibly wielding TOW anti-tank missiles and other weapons had shot down a Russian helicopter sent to the scene of the crash to look for survivors. There was no official confirmation from Russia, and state-run television news cited only foreign reports.

The Turkish military did not identify the nationality of the plane but said in a statement on its website that its pilots fired only after repeated warnings to the other warplane. Turkey released a map that it said showed that the plane, flying east, was shot down as it transited a narrow finger of Turkish land less than 2 miles wide that juts down into Syria.

“The aircraft entered Turkish airspace over the town of Yaylidag, in the southeastern Hatay province,” the statement read. “The plane was warned 10 times in the space of 5 minutes before it was taken down.”

A Turkish official repeated that, saying, “In line with the military rules of engagement, the Turkish authorities repeatedly warned an unidentified aircraft that they were 15 kilometers or less away from the border.”

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing matters of national security, said that the pilot ignored the warnings and flew into Turkish airspace.

“The Turkish air forces responded by downing the aircraft,” the official said.

The incident occurred as Russia and the West were slowly edging toward some manner of understanding to unite forces to confront the Islamic State in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian charter flight over Egypt that together killed 354 people.

President Francois Hollande of France began a world tour this week to try to build consensus on the issue, with stops in Washington and Moscow in the coming days.

But the warplane incident is likely to further sour relations between two central parties to any solution, Moscow and Ankara, already bruised over previous tensions on the border and differences over the fate of President Bashar Assad of Syria. The Kremlin sent its military to Syria in late September to shore up Assad and to fight rebels backed by Turkey.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, canceled a trip to Turkey for meetings Wednesday, more proof that “Russia-Turkey relations will drop below zero,” as Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Trends Studies, said on state-run Rossiya 24 cable news channel.

Turkish analysts said that it was unlikely for the incident to escalate into a broader conflict between Russia and the West. Since October, Turkey has chaired five separate meetings with Russian officials to address the violations of its airspace.

“I expect both sides to contain the crisis once again even though President Putin has made some harsh statements and Ankara called NATO and the U.N. to convene urgently,” said Verda Ozer, an analyst and columnist for the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “Turkey would not confront Russia without support from Washington. And it is crystal clear that the U.S. is not willing to escalate the tension with Russia. Ankara might ask the United Nations and NATO for a declaration of solidarity. Yet these institutions, which are mainly under U.S. dominance and guidance, would not go beyond a declaration.”

“I think all actors, namely the U.S., Russia and Turkey, must know very well that such a crisis would only help ISIS,” Ozer added, in a reference to the Islamic State.

Russia’s entry into the heavily trafficked skies around Syria in September raised immediate concerns about mishaps, inadvertent or otherwise, that could lead to confrontations involving Turkey, a NATO member, and the United States. Turkey has warned Russia about intrusions in its airspace at least two times since it began its bombing campaign and last month shot down an unmanned aerial device that analysts said was likely of Russian origin.

In Tuesday’s incident, television footage shown on the privately owned Turkish channel Haberturk showed a warplane exploding in the air and tumbling down in flames in a wooded area, identified by the broadcaster as a region of northern Syria known to Turks as the Turkmen Mountains.

The Russian military said that the plane’s two pilots had ejected, and another video published by the semiofficial news service Anadolu Agency showed two figures parachuting from the aircraft. Video footage emerged soon thereafter showing one bloody pilot on the ground surrounded by Syrians exulting at his death.

Shadi al-Ouwayni, an activist in rural Latakia province, said one pilot was shot as he drifted to the ground in his parachute while the other was captured by a local militia called the 10th Brigade. The pilots landed in different, but rebel-controlled, locations, he said.

“One of the Russian pilots was shot as he was trying to land,” he said. “The other was injured and captured.”

A video of one bloodied pilot on the ground began circulating on the Internet, with an activist saying that, “This is a Russian pilot and killer of men, women and children who was killed today after his plane was shot down in Syria.”

Tensions had been building recently over Russian bombing in the area. Last week, Turkey summoned the Russian ambassador, Andrey G. Karlov, to discuss Ankara’s concerns over the bombing of Turkmen villages in northern Syria and called for an immediate end to the Russian military operation close to the Turkish border, according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement.

“It was stressed that the Russian side’s actions were not a fight against terror, but they bombed civilian Turkmen villages and this could lead to serious consequences,” the statement said.

Ankara has long called for the protection of Turkmens, who are of Turkish descent, in Syria.

The downing of the jet Tuesday was the first time that anything negative has dominated Russian news coverage of the military campaign.

Coverage in the state-controlled media has been heavily sanitized, consisting mostly of cockpit videos of bombs striking targets or of generals talking in briefing rooms. The first publicly acknowledged casualty, the death of a young soldier last month, was quickly dismissed officially as a suicide. Russian officials vehemently deny that their bombing campaign has killed any civilians in Syria.

The Kremlin is highly sensitive to comparisons with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan 35 years ago, which despite Soviet censors slowly soured much of the public on foreign intervention.

PTI