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Crisis over 17 seconds: How a Russian warplane's brief presence in Turkish airspace sent tensions soaring

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 November, 2015, 4:11am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 November, 2015, 4:11am

In the blue sky above northern Syria, a dark shape moved. The shape was a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft. Russian jets based at the Khmeimim airbase in coastal Latakia had been pounding rebel positions. Under cover of Russian air strikes, Syrian government forces have been attacking. Their target wasn't Islamic State. Rather, the SU-24s had been hitting the homes and villages of Turkmens, Syrian citizens of Turkish ethnicity.These strikes had infuriated Ankara. So much so that Turkey's foreign minister summoned Russia's ambassador last week to demand that Moscow halt its operations around the Syrian-Turkish border. To no avail. About 7am, an Su-24 took off on another mission. It began flying north towards the border and a densely wooded area known as Turkmen mountain.

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According to Turkey, the Su-24 looped several times over the attack zone and then headed towards Turkey, a Nato member state. It was, seemingly, the latest provocative incursion by Russian fighters into Turkish airspace. Earlier this month, Russian Su-30 and Su-24 jets did the same thing, despite warnings. Russia later admitted that one jet had got lost. On that occasion, Nato answered with an angry press release.

This time, the response was different. Turkey's general staff said it warned the Su-24 "10 times within five minutes" that it was about to violate Turkish airspace. Apparently, the jet's Russian pilots carried on. Turkey scrambled two F-16 fighters. At 7.24am, one of them opened fire with an air-to-air missile. It was the first time a Nato member state had attacked a Russian plane since the cold war.

Video shows the plane falling from the sky. It looks like a comet, orange flame and white-grey smoke coming from its tail. You can hear a rumble. After several seconds, the Su-24 disappears from view and ploughs into the mountainside. There is a cloud of thick black smoke. The video shows something else: the two Russian pilots falling to earth in white parachutes, having ejected.

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As news of the incident broke, Russia's defence ministry gave its first response. According to Moscow, the downed Su-24 did not violate Turkish airspace. It was at all times inside Syria, it said, adding "objective monitoring data" backed this version of events.

READ MORE: Syria’s Turkmen rebels, the group at the centre of the Russia-Turkey clash

The defence ministry further suggested that the missile responsible had been fired "from the ground". The plane was flying at a height 6,000 metres, it said. One pro-Kremlin military analyst went even further, suggesting the rebels had used a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile to shoot the aircraft down "on Washington's orders".

The Turkish military countered with flight radar images which appeared to show the plane crossing, albeit briefly, a finger of Turkish territory in Hatay province sticking out into Syria. The plane crashed next to the Turkmen town of Bayirbucak, close to the Syrian-Turkish border.

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For much of the day, the fate of the two Russian pilots was a matter of confusion. One video taken by rebel fighters appears to show parachutes tumbling from the sky into rebel-held territory. A second video, deemed authentic by experts, shows a pilot, his face badly battered, lying on the ground. He appears to be immobile and possibly dead. The pilot is blond and wearing Russian uniform; his vest and arm patch are similar to those of other crew photographed in Latakia.

One voice can be heard shouting: "A Russian pilot!" Another says: "The 10th division has captured a Russian pilot! God is greatest!" The gunmen crowd around the body in an excitable group.

Jahed Ahmad, a commander with the anti-government 10th coastal brigade, said the two Russian crew members had tried to navigate their parachutes into government-held areas. They did not succeed. Members of his group shot at the pilots from a distance, he said. Two Russian military helicopters began a search for the pilots, flying low over the mountains of Latakia province. Reports suggested that one of the helicopters may have been downed by rebels using a Tow missile. An unconfirmed video shows rebels blowing up a stationary helicopter on the ground. The second helicopter reportedly rescued the first stricken helicopter's 10-man crew.

READ MORE: Downed Russian pilot arrives at air base after 12-hour rescue mission by Syrian army

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With no immediate word from Vladimir Putin, diplomats were weighing the most important question: how would the Russian president respond? Russia began its military operation in Syria in late September. Ostensibly, it was aimed at Islamic State. In reality, Russian jets had mostly bombed non-IS groups fighting the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, Moscow's key regional ally. These bombings had taken place predominantly in the north-west, especially around Russia's coastal bases, far from IS territory.

READ MORE: Putin says Turkey’s downing of Russian warplane will have ‘serious consequences’

The incident was an accident waiting to happen. It followed numerous Nato-Russia "near misses" over the Baltic state, North Sea and the English channel, as well as the Pacific coast of Canada and the US, caused by Russian jets flying provocatively close to Nato aircraft.

One former Turkish diplomat, Sinan Ulgen, said that, after Russia's previous incursions, a Russian military delegation had flown to Turkey to discuss the situation. Russian air force officials apologised, acknowledging a Russian pilot had blundered in one incident. Ulgen said: "It's not a surprise. The Russians have been testing the Turkish response at its borders and its rules of engagement."

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Putin finally gave his response. He called the incident "a stab in the back, carried out by the accomplices of terrorists". He said "our aircraft was downed over territory of Syria" and fell on to Syrian territory "4km from Turkey".

According to Putin, the Su-24s bombs were intended for "international terrorists", most of them "originating in Russia". He suggested Turkey's government led by president Recep Tayyip Erdoan was deliberately aiding Islamic State and allowing it to make "hundreds of millions and billions of dollars from illicit arms sales".

This in turn allowed the group to conduct "terrorist attacks throughout the world including in the heart of Europe."

Putin added: "Today's tragic event will have significant consequences, including for Russia-Turkish relations. And instead of immediately getting in contact with us, as far as we know, the Turkish side turned to their partners from Nato to discuss this incident, as if we shot down their plane and not they ours."

READ MORE: Putin sends state-of-the-art missile system to Russian air base in Syria, 50km of Turkish border

Putin's response may have seemed vehement. Notably, though, he did not raise the prospect of direct military reprisals against Ankara. Rather, it appeared that Moscow would take other, more oblique steps. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, cancelled a visit to Turkey scheduled for yesterday. He also suggested that Russians should not visit Turkey for holidays.

This would indeed be a blow to Turkey's tourist industry: 4.5 million Russians visited Turkey in 2014, 12 per cent of the total, many of them on cheap package tours.

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Turkey briefed Nato ambassadors about the incident at a meeting in Brussels. Meanwhile, the White House confirmed that the Su-24 had indeed violated Turkish airspace - for a matter of seconds. According to Ankara, in a letter to the UN security council, the aircraft had been above Turkish territory for 17 seconds. And during this brief visit it was shot down.