Vladimir Putin has called Turkey “accomplices of terrorists” and warned of “serious consequences” after a Turkish F-16 jet shot down a Russian warplane on Tuesday morning, the first time a Nato country and Moscow have exchanged direct fire over the crisis in Syria.
The Russian president, speaking before a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan in Sochi, said the plane had been shot down over Syrian airspace and fell 4km inside Syria. Putin said it was “obvious” the plane posed no threat to Turkey.
“Our military is doing heroic work against terrorism … But the loss today is a stab in the back, carried out by the accomplices of terrorists. I can’t describe it in any other way,” he said. Putin suggested the Turks were shielding Islamic State terrorists from Russian attacks, saying: “Do they want to make Nato serve Isis?”
In Washington, Barack Obama said that Turkey had a right to defend its territory and airspace, but called on all parties to “step back” and ensure the situation does not escalate.
Speaking at a joint press conference with his French counterpart Francois Hollande, the US president said that the incident underlined the shortcomings of Russia’s operation in Syria. “The problem has been Russia’s focus on propping up Assad rather than concentrating on Isil,” he said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State terror group.
“Russian airstrikes against the moderate opposition only help to bolster Isil. Russia could play a more constructive role it if shifts the focus of its strikes,” he said.
Obama and Hollande both repeated calls for Russia to participate in efforts to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis. “The sooner we agree to a political process, the less likely events like this will be,” Obama said.
Ankara and the Kremlin gave conflicting accounts of the incident, which appears to have occurred in an area near the Turkish-Syrian border straddling Iskenderun and Latakia.
The Turkish military said it scrambled two F-16 fighter jets after a plane entered Turkish airspace in the province of Hatay at 9.20am on Tuesday, warning it to leave 10 times in five minutes before shooting it down.
A government official said: “In line with the military rules of engagement, the Turkish authorities repeatedly warned an unidentified aircraft that they were 15km or less away from the border. The aircraft didn’t heed the warnings and proceeded to fly over Turkey. The Turkish air forces responded by downing the aircraft.
“This isn’t an action against any specific country: our F-16s took necessary steps to defend Turkey’s sovereign territory.”
The Turkish UN ambassador, Halit Cevik, told the UN Security Council in a letter that two planes had flow a mile into Turkey for 17 seconds. “Following the violation, plane 1 left Turkish national airspace. Plane 2 was fired at while in Turkish national airspace by Turkish F-16s performing air combat patrolling in the area,” he wrote.
Russia’s defence ministry, in a series of tweets, confirmed that a Russian Su-24 had been shot down, but insisted the plane had never left Syrian airspace and claimed that fire from the ground was responsible. “At all times, the Su-24 was exclusively over the territory of Syria,” the defence ministry said.