Sunday 18 February 2018

'Russian drone' shot down by Turks

The drone shot down by Turkish aircraft
The drone shot down by Turkish aircraft

Raziye Akkoc

Turkey has shot down an aircraft in its air space near the Syrian border, with US officials suggesting that it was a Russian drone.

The Turkish general staff said it shot the aircraft in accordance with its rules of engagement, giving three warnings, and would continue to follow its duties in line with its rules, in a statement posted on the military's website.

"The aircraft, whose nationality could not be established, was downed by patrolling Turkish jets in accordance with engagement rules after it failed to heed three warnings," the statement read.

A US official said last night that it was suspected that the drone was Russian, but said it was still too early to give a definitive answer.

Turkish officials confirmed it was an unmanned aerial vehicle.

"It's a drone. We are trying to identify its nationality," a senior Turkish government official told reporters.

Feridun Sinirlioglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said the drone crashed about two miles inside Turkish territory.

"We have not been able to establish who the drone belongs to, but we are able to work on it because it fell inside Turkish territory," he said.

Russia first began its air strikes in Syria on September 30 and has hit Syrian rebels, some of whom are supported by the US, fighting against president Bashar al-Assad.

Yesterday, Moscow strongly denied it was one of its aircraft that Turkey had shot down.

"I state with absolute responsibility that all our drones are either performing tasks or staying at the base," Col Gen Andrei Kartapolov, of the Russian military's General Staff, said at a meeting with foreign military attaches in Moscow.

Earlier in the day, the country's defence ministry said that all planes had safely returned to base and all drones were operating as planned.

"All the Russian planes in Syria have returned to the Hmeimim air base after completing their tasks.

"Russian unmanned aerial vehicles monitoring the situation on the territory of Syria and carrying out air reconnaissance are working as normal," Igor Konashenkov, a defence ministry spokesman, told Russian media.

It comes weeks after Russian aircraft violated Turkish airspace, leading to condemnations from Ankara officials and Nato.

After two separate violations of Turkish airspace, Nato noted the "extreme danger of such irresponsible behaviour".

"The aircraft in question entered Turkish airspace despite Turkish authorities' clear, timely and repeated warnings," the military alliance said in a statement earlier this month.

Meanwhile, yesterday Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah and Iranian fighters launched an offensive south of Aleppo, expanding their counter-attack against rebels across western Syria with support from Russian air strikes.

The assault means the army is now pressing insurgents on several fronts near Syria's main cities in the west, control of which would secure President Assad's hold on power even if the east of the country is still held by Islamic State of the Iraq and the Levant (Isil).

Aleppo, a commercial and industrial hub near the border with Turkey, was Syria's largest city before its four-year civil war, which grew out of protests against Assad's rule.

Control of the city, still home to two million people, is divided between the government and rebels.

"This is the promised battle," a senior government military source said of the offensive backed by hundreds of Hezbollah and Iranian forces which he said had made some gains on the ground.

It was the first time Iranian fighters had taken part on such a scale in the Syrian conflict, he said, although their numbers were modest compared to the army force. "The main core is the Syrian army," the source said.

Hezbollah, which has supported Assad in several battles during the civil war, said the army was carrying out a "broad military operation" with support from Russian and Syrian jets. It made no mention of Hezbollah fighters in its brief statement.

Two senior regional sources told Reuters this week that Iran has sent thousands of troops to Syria to bolster an offensive underway in Hama province and ahead of the Aleppo attack.

Iran says it has sent weapons and military advisers to support its ally Assad, but has denied providing troops.

In the last week Iranian media have reported the deaths in Syria of three senior officers from Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps. Hossein Hamedani, a corps deputy commander, was killed near Aleppo and two other officers have also died fighting Isil forces in Syria, Iran's Tasnim news agency said.

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