ISTANBUL (REUTERS, AFP) - Turkey’s Nato allies on Wednesday (Nov 25) called for a rapid de-escalation in tensions between Ankara and Moscow after Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian war plane on the Syrian border, sparking fears of a wider conflict.
Moscow said one of the pilots was killed by fire from the ground after parachuting out of the burning plane on Tuesday, while the second had been taken to safety by the Syrian army.
The defence ministry said a Russian soldier was also killed when a helicopter search-and-rescue operation came under fire although others were evacuated.
With the incident risking serious harm for Ankara-Moscow relations, Turkey said the Russian plane had violated its air space 10 times within a five minute period, but Russia insisted it had never strayed from Syrian territory. President Vladimir Putin reacted furiously to what he described as a “stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists”, and insisted the plane had posed no threat.
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.
“I think it is very important for us to right now make sure that both the Russians and the Turks are talking to each other and find out exactly what happened, and take measures to discourage any kind of escalation,” Obama told reporters.
“Hopefully, this is a moment in which all parties can step back and make a determination as to how their interests are best served.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Obama agreed on the need to reduce tensions and prevent a repeat of similar incidents in a phone call late on Tuesday, the Turkish presidency said.
In his first reaction to the incident, Erdogan said: “Everyone must respect the right of Turkey to protect its borders.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the incident has complicated the process of finding a political solution in Syria and everything must be done to avoid a further escalation.
“The situation has been aggravated by the shooting down of a Russian plane by Turkey,” Merkel said in a speech in the lower house of parliament, in reference to the situation in Syria. “We need to do everything to avoid an escalation,” she added.
“Of course every country has a right to defend its territory but on the other hand we know how tense the situation is in Syria and in the surrounding area. I spoke yesterday with the Turkish prime minister and asked him to do everything to de-escalate the situation.”
Following an extraordinary meeting of the alliance called by Ankara, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg urged both sides to try to calm the crisis between the two rival players in the Syrian conflict. “Diplomacy and de-escalation are important to resolve this situation,” he said.
A US official told Reuters, on condition of anonymity, that the United States believes that the Russian jet shot down by Turkey was hit inside Syrian air space after a brief incursion into Turkish airspace.
The official said that assessment was based on detection of the heat signature of the jet.