Turkey, Russia and their respective allies have entered a war of words about the downing of a Russian warplane near the Turkey-Syria border – raising tensions in a region struggling to cope with the ongoing Syrian conflict.
The Russian Sukhoi Su-24 warplane was shot down for violating Turkish airspace on Tuesday morning, Turkish officials said, angering Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who likened the incident to being “stabbed in the back”.
The plane crashed in Syrian territory in Latakia’s Yamadi village.
“Today’s loss is linked to a stab in the back delivered to us by accomplices of terrorists. I cannot qualify what happened today as anything else,” a visibly angry Putin said in televised comments.
“Our plane was shot down over the territory of Syria by an air-to-air missile from a Turkish F-16 jet. It fell in Syrian territory four kilometres from the border with Turkey. Our pilots and our plane did not in any way threaten Turkey.”
Russia has been carrying out air strikes in Syria since September, saying it is targeting ISIL and al-Nusra Front. The Syrian opposition and Western powers, however, say the Russian strikes have mainly targeted rebel groups fighting the Syrian regime – an ally of Moscow.
Putin also sharply criticised Turkey for establishing contact with NATO to discuss the incident, prior to contacting Moscow.
“Instead of immediately establishing contacts with us, as far as we know Turkey turned to its NATO partners to discuss this incident – as if we had hit their plane and not the other way around,” he said.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, however, said 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.
“Turkey will not hesitate to take all steps to protect the country’s security.”
Following the incident on Tuesday, Russia’s defence ministry announced that it is suspending its military cooperation with Turkey and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled a planned trip to Turkey on Wednesday.
Russia also warned its citizens not to travel to Turkey, saying it was unsafe, and deployed a warship to the coastline near where the plane crashed.
While NATO – of which Turkey is a member – called for the two nations to show restraint, the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, “We stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally.”
Fellow NATO member, the United States, also backed Turkey’s right to defend its territory.
President Barack Obama said while the US did not have enough information to form conclusions about the incident, similar confrontations could be avoided if Russia stopped attacking “moderate” Syrian rebels who are battling forces loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“This points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operations in the sense that they are operating very close to a Turkish border and they are going after moderate opposition that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries,” Obama said.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government backed its key ally Russia, with a military official telling the state SANA news agency that by shooting down the Russian plane, Turkey had committed “a gross violation of Syrian sovereignty”.
“The desperate acts of aggression will only increase our determination to continue the war against the terrorist organisations with the support and help of Syria’s friends, mainly Russia,” the official said.
A major point of contention is whether the Russian jet crossed into Turkish airspace, with the two nations releasing their own satellite images showing conflicting views of the jet’s final flight path.
A Turkish military statement said the plane violated Turkish airspace in Hatay province and was warned “10 times in five minutes” before being shot down at 9:24am local time.
A US official told Al Jazeera that the penetration of Turkish airspace by the Russian jet lasted “only a matter of seconds” as it crossed a roughly 3km wide section of Turkey that took only 20 seconds to traverse.
Russia, however, vehemently denied that its plane ever crossed into Turkish airspace.
Rebel forces told Al Jazeera the bodies of both Russian pilots were recovered after the crash, but Russia’s military said only one pilot was killed. Moscow has not yet said what happened to the second pilot.
A Russian helicopter was also shot at as it took part in the search for the two pilots near the Turkish-Syrian border, opposition groups in Syria said.
Russia confirmed that one of the helicopter’s crew members was shot dead in the incident and that the other crew members were “evacuated” after making an emergency landing.