Friday 17 January 2020

The militiaman, the parachutist's murder and the tug of war between Russia and Turkey

Russian President Vladimir Putin Photo: REUTERS/Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin Photo: REUTERS/Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin

Kim Sengupta

The arrest of Alparsian Celik at a restaurant in Izmir did not generate much publicity.

He is not a well-known figure - but he is the man accused of a brutal act of violence in Syria's civil war, which has had widespread international repercussions.

Celik, a Turkish citizen fighting in Syria, led militia fighters who shot dead a Russian pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov, after his warplane had been shot down by Turkey. The strike on the jet led to a confrontation between Moscow and Ankara, with a furious Vladimir Putin ordering economic sanctions and rushing advanced weaponry to his forces on the ground.

A tale has unfolded since then of Russians seeking retribution for the death of Lt Col Peshkov and accusing the Turkish authorities of protecting the pilot's killer.

Celik had been freely moving between Syria and Turkey since the shooting down of the plane last November. At the funeral for another Turkish fighter killed in Syria, he explained: "I am here and there, I am going and returning."

Moscow has demanded Celik be extradited and regards the lack of action by Turkey as collusion in the killing.

There have been reports that the Russian intelligence service, FSB, the successor to the KGB, had taken matters into its own hands and was hunting down the wanted man. The threat of retribution lay not only upon Celik. The Kremlin has been accused of eliminating enemies in Turkey and elsewhere in the region.

On Wednesday, two Russians, Yury Anisimov and Alexander Smirnov, were arrested in Istanbul for alleged involvement in the assassination in the city of Abdulvakhid Edelgiryev, a Chechen who had been fighting in Syria. The two men were secret agents, claimed the police, and were planning further attacks.

However, before the same fate could befall 32-year-old Celik, he and 13 other Turks, who had also been in Syria, were suddenly arrested while having dinner at the restaurant in Hatay district of Izmir by Turkish officials.

The arrest could be viewed as an attempt by Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at fence mending with President Putin. Some officials say, however, that the fighter has been taken into protective custody because of the threat against him by the Russians.

The police in Izmir, meanwhile, claimed that Celik's arrest had nothing to do with the death of the Russian pilot.

Instead, they maintained, he was being investigated for illegally carrying firearms and alleged embezzlement of aid for the Turkmen community in Syria.

But Celik, who remains in custody, is being questioned about Peshkov's death and has, the Independent has learned, given a lengthy statement to the office of the prosecutor in Izmir, outlining his version of what happened.

Celik now claims that he did not kill the pilot, but, rather, tried to save him.

He said in the deposition: "In that very first video, which was disseminated across the social media, at the very moment where the parachute appears, you can hear me giving order not to shoot. And when the shots rang out, I started to scream. I shouted dozens of times not to shoot and to take him prisoner."

Celik goes on to say that he accepts ultimate responsibility: "But of course, the entire responsibility for the pilot, who was killed by men under my command, lies upon me and I must answer for everything which took place on the Turkmen mountains."

It is unclear who was giving Celik his orders that day. He and his fellow Turkish nationals say they are fighting in Syria to defend the country's Turkmen community from the Assad regime. Many of them, however, are members of the Grey Wolves, a paramilitary set up in the late 1960s, which has a long history of association with violence. One of its members, Mehmet Ali Agca, was convicted of the attempted assassination of the Pope John Paul II in 1981.

The Grey Wolves have been accused in the past of being part of Turkey's 'Deep State', a secret cabal of the country's military and the extreme right-wing which conducted a secret war against its opponents, left-wing activists, trade unionists and Kurdish groups.

In his statements to the prosecutor, Celik adheres to the Turkish government's narrative that the Russian fighter craft had violated Turkish airspace when it was shot down.

He said: "The plane, having unloaded all its bombs, started to turn around and was over Turkish airspace at the moment it was shot down.

"At that moment, when it was shot down and we saw the parachute, we were engaged in the process of dragging dead and wounded bodies out from under the ruins."

Celik's lawyer, Murat Ustundag, wanted to stress that "Turkish laws clearly prohibit extradition of a Turkish national to other countries."

The Russian state could, however, request to be a party to any trial of Celik in Turkey, he acknowledged.

© Independent

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