Russian and Syrian special forces free second pilot of a Russian warplane shot down by Turkey, says defense minister
What has happened today so far?
Russia hit back at Turkey and its Nato allies today, announcing it was deploying high-end anti-aircraft missiles to its military facilities in the country, write Roland Oliphant in Moscow and Richard Spencer, Middle East Editor.
Meanwhile, the Russian navigator rescued after his jet was shot down has promised to keep flying missions as revenge for the death of his pilot, Lt Col Oleg Peshkov, who was shot dead by Syrian rebels.
He told Russian TV: “I can’t wait to return [to flying] … I have a debt to repay to the commander.”
There were also major air attacks, said to be by Russian jets, across northern Syria against rebel groups backed by Turkey in what appeared to a calculated show of strength.
Rebels said among the targets was an aid convoy belonging to a Turkish aid group, IHH, with links to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But IHH denied this on Twitter.
Western powers urged a de-escalation of tensions, but Vladimir Putin suggested he was in no mood to take Tuesday’s shooting down of a Russian fighter bomber by Turkish F-16 jets lightly.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, accused the Turks of a “planned provocation” that would cause Moscow to “seriously reassess” relations with Ankara.
“We have no intention to go to war with Turkey,” Mr Lavrov said at a televised briefing. “Yet we can’t but react to what has happened.”
The decision by Mr Putin to deploy S-400 missiles to the Russian air base in Latakia is one of several counter measures announced by Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister.
With a range of 250 miles, the S-400s would easily be able to destroy any hostile aircraft operating in the border areas of Turkey and Syria where the Russian SU-24 was shot down
Its deployment also sends a message to Nato. Mr Putin’s decision to send a fleet of war-planes to the base has already turned what was previously a minor Syrian outpost to a front-line Russian base on Nato’s south-eastern edge.
Just as the ease with which Turkey’s advanced American jets shot down their Russian adversary is a warning to Mr Putin not to over-reach himself, the counter-deployment of air defence missiles is intended to deter any Nato move to implement a no-fly zone over Syria.
Mr Shoigu also said all future bombing missions would be accompanied by fighter escorts, and ordered the country’s most powerful missile cruiser, the Moskva, to patrol in-shore waters near the Turkish-Syrian border.
“She will be ready to destroy any aerial target posing a potential danger to our aircraft,” he said.
Photo: EAST2WEST NEWS
The Kremlin accused Ankara of conspiring in advance to “ambush” the SU-24 jet as it carried out a bombing mission against rebel groups near the Turkish-Syrian border on Tuesday morning.
The pilot, Lt Col Oleg Peshkov, was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted to earth. The navigator, Capt Konstanin Murakhin, survived, despite initial reports that he too had been killed.
He was rescued from behind rebel lines by a Russian-Syrian mission. Speaking publicly for the first time this evening (see video below), Capt Murakhin denied that his aircraft had entered Turkish airspace “even for a single second.”
He also rejected the Turkish claim that its F-16 had repeatedly warned the Russian jet before opening fire.
“There have been no warnings whatsoever,” said Capt Murakhtin, who added that he wanted to keep flying missions from the base “to pay them back for my commander”.
In response, the Turkish authorities released what they said was a recording of the warnings being issued.
Lt Col Peshkov was posthumously made a Hero of Russia, the country’s highest award. Capt Murakhtin and Alexander Pozynich, a marine killed when his search and rescue helicopter was destroyed by rebels, were awarded the Order of Courage.
The incident has provoked fury in Russia, where a mob smashed windows at the Turkish embassy on Wednesday afternoon and MPs have demanded retaliation. Police cleared the street shortly after the protest began.
The Russian authorities also appear to have threatened trade sanctions in response, and warned Russian citizens against travelling to Turkey, a major holiday destination for them.
But Mr Lavrov also hinted that Russia would resist calls from populist MPs to sever economic ties altogether.
Turkey imported $25 billion worth of Russian goods and commodities last year, mostly in the form of natural gas supplies. Turkish exports to Russia are mostly made up of textiles and food.
In the wider war of words with the West, Mr Lavrov repeated suggestions that Turkey was allowing a trade in oil with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) to continue, suggesting the shooting down of the jet was in response to Russian attacks on Isil oil installations.
However, the United States made its own response: it announced a list of new sanctions on Syrian and Russian entities, including a Syrian Christian businessman accused of acting as a middleman buying Isil oil for the Assad regime, and Russian businessmen and companies for helping the regime.