It was a double blow for Russia fighting Islamist extremists in Syria on Tuesday.
Hours after a Russian Su-24 fighter jet was shot down (watch the video clip) by an air-to-air Turkish F-16 plane within the borders of Syria leaving a pilot dead, a Russian Mi-8 helicopter on a search and rescue operation came under mortar fire from insurgents killing one naval infantry soldier, RT reports.
Russian Defense Ministry said the SU-24 jet was shot down within 1 kilometer away from the Turkish border in the Syrian territory while flying at an altitude of 6,000 meters.
“During the flight, the aircraft was flying within the borders of Syria, which was registered by objective monitoring data,” the ministry said.
Moscow plans to suspend military cooperation with Ankara, Russian General Staff representatives said on Tuesday.
Russia has also deployed its missile cruiser off Syria coast and ordered to destroy any target posing danger.
A stab in the back, says Putin
Addressing media from Amman, where he was set to hold talks on Syria with King Abdullah, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the supporters of Islamic State “stabbed us in the back” and the plane downing incident is going to seriously affect Russia-Turkey ties.
“This incident stands out against the usual fight against terrorism. Our troops are fighting heroically against terrorists, risking their lives. But the loss we suffered today came from a stab in the back delivered by accomplices of the terrorists,” Putin said.
Conflicting reports on the fate of pilots
As the plane went down in flames, the two Russian pilots managed to eject, said an initial report.
Reuters reports, citing a deputy commander of a Turkmen brigade in Syria, said Turkmen forces shot dead the two Russian pilots as they descended by parachute after the Su-24 jet was downed.
Another report said while Turkmen forces seized one pilot, a video posted online showed some armed men standing around the other pilot who appeared to be dead. His face was bruised and bloodied. The men seemed to be happy and were praising Allah, with some regretting that they had not burned him on the spot.
“A Russian pilot,” a voice was heard saying. “Allahu Akbar (God is great).”
Now reports have emerged that the two pilots may be still alive. Ankara is working to secure their release from Syrian rebels, a Turkish government official told Reuters.
“Our units, who received the information that the two pilots were alive, are working to get them from opposition rebels safely,” the official said.
The Russian defense ministry said choppers are searching for the two pilots in the mountainous terrain where the plane crashed.
Oil fueling terror in the region
Addressing media, Putin said the Russian planes and pilots never posed any threat to Turkey. Still the fighter jet was shot down.
“I don’t know in whose interest today’s event is. But I am quite sure it is not in Russia’s interest.”
That Turkey did not try to contact Russia in the wake of the incident and, instead, rushed to call a NATO meeting is worrisome, Putin said, adding that it appears Turkey wants NATO to serve the interests of IS.
“Oil products flow from the captured area to Turkey,” he said.
“IS has big money, hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, from selling oil. In addition, they are protected by the military of an entire nation. One can understand why they are acting so boldly and blatantly. Why they kill people in such atrocious ways. Why they commit terrorist acts across the world, including in the heart of Europe,” he said.
Over the past five days, Russian air strikes had torched more than 1,000 tankers taking stolen crude oil to Islamic State refineries.
Reacting to the downing of Su-24 fighter, the Russian assembly Duma said the incident shows Turkey is supporting the Islamic State.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was planning to visit Turkey on November 25 to discuss Syria, has canceled the trip.
Pilots were warned 10 times: Turkey
Turkish military said the Russian jet had been warned at least 10 times over a period of five minutes before being shot down by two Turkish F-16 fighter jets. An official said the plane had violated Turkish airspace.
But agency reports said the plane reportedly crashed in a village mostly populated by Syrian Turkmen and known by Turks as “Turkmen Mountain”. The place has been a hotspot between the opposition and the Syrian Army.
Earlier, Turkey had warned Russia it has every right to retaliate and take necessary measures in the event its border security is threatened as a result of the Russian military’s operations targeting civilian Turkmen Syrians on the Turkish-Syrian border.
The warning was conveyed to Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov on Nov. 19, as he was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in reaction to Russian air strikes on Turkmen villages in northwestern Syria only a few kilometers from the Turkish border.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with officials from the foreign ministry on Tuesday and instructed them to consult with NATO and the UN on the latest developments on the Syrian border, Davutoglu’s office said in a statement.
NATO is due to hold an emergency meeting at 5 pm Russian time. Surprisingly, hours after the jet downing, Nato has not yet talked with Moscow about the incident.
US shields Turkey, Syrian rebels
Turkey and the rebels it backs in northern Syria have the right to defend themselves against Russian air strikes, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
The rebels reportedly killed one Russian pilot who ejected from the jet hit by a Turkish missile and also a marine who was in the downed Mi-8 helicopter which had gone on a search mission for the two pilots.
“If these ‘Turkomen’ were actually being attacked by Russian strikes, they have every right to defend themselves,” Toner said.
When asked whether that rule does not apply to everyone including the Assad regime, he said what the Assad regime had been doing were acts of terror through the past four years.
3 Russian reporters hurt in rockets strike
Two RT correspondents and a TASS reporter were injured after a press convoy came under shell fire (watch the video clip) on the Turkish-Syrian border. The injuries were minor as the reporters were wearing bullet-proof vests.
The crew were passing the village of Al-Dagmashliya in the province of Latakia, controlled by President Bashar Assad’s forces, when they came under shelling.
RT’s Roman Kosarev sustained a concussion while RT Arabic’s Sargon Hadaya was injured by pieces of shrapnel in his back and leg. The TASS reporter was injured by shrapnel in his hand.
Kosarev said that press convoy was hit by an anti-tank missile coming from a rebel-controlled area some 2.5 km away.
The RT reporters have returned to Russia’s military base in Latakia and are being treated by medics.