Tuesday 27 September 2016

Rescued Russian airman vows 'pay back' for Syrian rebels as Moscow accuses Turkey over downed jet

Roland Oliphant in Moscow

Published 26/11/2015 | 02:30

Protesters hold placards and shout slogans as they take part in an anti-Turkey picket outside the Turkish embassy in Moscow. Turkey shot down a Russian war plane on the Syrian border.
Protesters hold placards and shout slogans as they take part in an anti-Turkey picket outside the Turkish embassy in Moscow. Turkey shot down a Russian war plane on the Syrian border.
Russian President Vladimir Putin

A Russian airman who survived the downing of his warplane says Turkish jets did not issue any visual or radio warnings.

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Captain Konstantin Murakhtin said that he couldn't possibly have flown into Turkish airspace because the crew knew the region "like the back of their hand".

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.

Mr Murakhtin was rescued early yesterday by Russian and Syrian commandos and was speaking in televised comments from the Russian Hemeimeem air base in Syria.

"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".

But an audio released by the Turks appears to contradict the pilot's account. In the recording, a warning is heard before the jet was shot down near the Syrian border. A voice on the recording can be heard saying "change your heading".

Russia sent an advanced missile system to Syria yesterday to protect its jets operating there and pledged its air force would keep flying missions near Turkish air space, sounding a defiant note after Turkey shot down the Russian fighter jet.

Underscoring the message, Russian forces launched a heavy bombardment against insurgent-held areas in Latakia, near where the jet was downed, rebels and a monitoring group said.

The downing of the jet was one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a Nato member and Russia for half a century, and further complicated international efforts to battle Isil militants in Syria.

President Tayyip Erdogan made no apology, saying his nation had simply been defending its own security and the "rights of our brothers in Syria". He made clear Turkish policy would not change.

Russian officials expressed fury over Turkey's action and spoke of retaliatory measures that were likely to include curbing travel by Russian tourists to Turkish resorts and some restrictions on trade.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described it as a planned act and said it would impact efforts towards a political solution in Syria. Moscow would "seriously reconsider" its relations with Ankara, he said.

Jets believed to be Russian also hit a depot for trucks waiting to go through a major rebel-controlled border crossing with Turkey, Bab al-Salam, the head of the crossing, said.

Syrian jets have struck the area before, but if confirmed to have been carried out by Russia, it would be one of Moscow's closest air strikes to Turkish soil, targeting a humanitarian corridor into rebel-held Syria and a lifeline for ordinary Syrians crossing to Turkey.

But the Russian response was also carefully calibrated, indicating Moscow did not want to jeopardise its main objective in the region: to rally international support for its view on how the conflict in Syria should be resolved.

"We have no intention of fighting a war with Turkey," Lavrov said. Erdogan also said Ankara had no intention of escalating tensions with Russia.

Speaking on a trip to the Ural mountains city of Nizhny Tagil, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the despatch of an advanced weapons system to Russia's Khmeimim air base in Syria's Latakia province.

"I hope that this, along with other measures that we are taking, will be enough to ensure (the safety) of our flights," Putin told reporters, in an apparent warning to Turkey.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was forced to fly missions close to the Turkish border because that was where the militants tended to be located. Russian operations would continue, he said.

Turkey insisted that the downed jet had encroached on Turkish air space and was warned repeatedly to change course, but Russian officials have said the plane was at no time over Turkey.

The crew ejected, and one pilot was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted to the ground. A Russian marine sent to recover the crew was also killed in an attack by rebels.

So far, the war of words has yielded few serious consequences for Turkey, mostly because Russia has too much to lose. The two countries are important trading partners and it would be damaging to shake those ties at a time when both economies are on the rocks.

And despite being at odds over the future of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, cooperation between Russia and Turkey is vital if a political solution to the Syria's civil war is to be reached. Before the diplomatic clash, there had been rumours that Russia was willing to back a ceasefire. (© Daily Telegraph London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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