Russia today accused Turkey of a “planned provocation” over the downing of a warplane on the Syrian border but pledged not to go to war as NATO-member Ankara sought to play down tensions.
As the diplomatic fallout from yesterday’s incident raged on, Moscow said Russian and Syrian special forces had rescued one of the pilots who ejected from the burning Russian plane but confirmed the second airman was dead.
The jet downing has threatened ties between two major rival players in the Syrian war and raised fears it could escalate into a wider geopolitical conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ratcheted up the pressure after talking to Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu by phone in the first contact between the two sides since the plane went down.
“We have serious doubts about this being an unpremeditated act, it really looks like a planned provocation,” Lavrov said at a press conference in Moscow.
“We do not plan to go to war with Turkey, our attitude toward the Turkish people has not changed,” Lavrov added, but warned that Moscow would “seriously reevaluate” relations with Ankara.
President Vladimir Putin yesterday branded the incident a “stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists”, recommending that Russians do not visit Turkey, a key tourist destination.
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 strain ties with Moscow.
Turkey says the Su-24 warplane violated its airspace 10 times within a five-minute period, but Russia insisted it 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 Islamic State militants who control swathes of northern Syria.
US President Barack Obama said Washington’s NATO ally had a right to defend its airspace but said his priority was to make sure the standoff did not escalate.
Following an extraordinary meeting of the alliance yesterday, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said “diplomacy and de-escalation are important to resolve this situation”.
Turkey’s 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 had flown 2.19 kilometres into Turkish airspace for 17 seconds from 1254 IST yesterday.
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 a US-led anti-IS coalition.
Turkey had protested that Russia’s campaign was aimed at hitting Syrian rebels and buttressing the Assad regime rather than hurting IS jihadists.
As the recriminations flew, Moscow said its special forces had helped rescue one of the pilots alongside Syrian troops and that the serviceman was now safe at a Russian air base in Syria.
“The operation ended successfully. The second pilot has been brought to our base. He is alive and well,” Shoigu said.
Putin said the rescued pilot would be given a medal, along with those involved in the rescue operation and the other pilot who was shot dead by rebels after parachuting out.
Russia’s military 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.
In Moscow several hundred young activists hurled stones and eggs at Turkey’s embassy and brandished anti-Turkish placards in a brief protest over the jet downing.