Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday sought to play down tensions with Russia after Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane on the Syria border sparked fears among NATO allies of a wider conflict.
Moscow said Russian and Syrian special forces had rescued one of the pilots who ejected from the plane after being shot down early on Tuesday, but confirmed another was dead, in an incident that threatens to damage relations between two rival players in the Syrian conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted furiously to what he described as a “stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists,” recommending that Russians do not visit Turkey, a key tourist destination.
Turkey said the Russian Su-24 warplane had violated its airspace 10 times within a five-minute period, but Russia insisted it had never strayed from Syrian territory.
The shooting also risks derailing efforts to bring peace to Syria that were gaining tentative momentum following the Nov. 13 Paris attacks claimed by Islamic State group militants, who control swathes of northern Syria.
Erdogan vowed to always defend Turkish borders, but appeared to want to avoid further provoking one of the biggest crises between Russia and a NATO member in recent years.
“We have no intention to escalate this incident. We are just defending our security and the rights of our brothers,” Erdogan said in a televised speech in Istanbul.
Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov yesterday said Russia did not intend to wage a war against Turkey over the downed jet.
Lavrov also said Russia viewed the downing as a planned act and Moscow would “seriously reconsider” its relations with Ankara.
US President Barack Obama said Washington’s NATO ally Turkey had a right to defend its airspace, but said his priority was to make sure the standoff did not escalate.
“Hopefully, this is a moment in which all parties can step back and make a determination as to how their interests are best served,” Obama said.
Erdogan and Obama agreed on the need to reduce tensions and prevent a repeat of similar incidents in a phone call late on Tuesday, the Turkish presidency said.
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