Syria conflict: Russian air force and local militia hunt for Turkish nationalist suspected of killing pilot

Wanted man – who is thought to be hiding in the town of Rabia – taunts Kremlin over its apparent inability to locate him

A Turkish ultra-nationalist who allegedly killed a Russian pilot is being hunted by the Kremlin’s forces in Syria.

Alparslan Celik – who claimed to have attacked the pilots of an Su-24 fighter shot down by Turkey in November – was reportedly being targeted in the province of Latakia after a string of gains by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

With the aid of Russian air power and local militias, the Syrian military has captured a series of rebel-held towns in the province, which shares a border with Turkey.

The major push comes ahead of talks to end the Syrian conflict due to begin in Geneva on Friday and has triggered growing concern in Turkey at the plight of ethnic Turkmens, whose brigades are suffering heavy losses.

Russian media said that Mr Celik, a Turkish citizen who has been fighting alongside Turkmen rebels, was likely to be hiding in the town of Rabia, which fell from opposition hands at the weekend. 

Though he originally claimed to have killed both pilots of the Russian jet, it later emerged that one survived and was rescued. 

He subsequently said that Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov deserved to die, prompting the Russian foreign ministry to demand his arrest. Mr Celik then taunted Moscow with a jibe that he had yet to be killed by “the dust and smoke from your bombs”. However, in a statement published by the Turkish newspaper Vatan, he conceded that rebels were struggling to contend with air strikes that have been pounding the region.

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Syrian government forces in Rabia on Wednesday (Reuters)

Russia and Turkey have supported opposing sides in the Syria conflict since its outset in 2011, but the downing of a Russian plane by the Turkish air force sent relations plummeting to a new low.

Tensions have been aggravated by Turkey’s growing alarm at Russian-backed gains by Syrian government forces in Syria, which threaten opposition supply lines and could force Turkey to share more of its border with President Assad. The area is populated by several groups including Turkmen, an ethnic minority whose members speak Turkish and whose rebel brigades have received support from Ankara. Their cause has been taken up by Turkish nationalists such as Mr Celik.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erodgan, has repeatedly warned the Kremlin against targeting “our Turkmen brothers” in the region. Their plight was on the agenda for Wednesday's national security meeting. Turkish media has warned that the Turkmen community is facing “ethnic cleansing” of villages in Latakia in an effort to turn the area into an Assad stronghold. Dr Kerem Kinik of the Turkish Red Crescent told The Independent that the situation in the province was “very fragile” as heavy Russian air strikes and fierce fighting continued. The rebels were losing territory, he said.

He and other local sources said the majority of civilians had fled Turkmen villages in the region known as Bayirbucak, but that 5,000 to 6,000 Turkmen civilians were living in difficult conditions in camps near the Syrian border.

The stand-off between Russia and Turkey has complicated the already messy efforts to hold peace talks to end the Syrian conflict, which will soon enter its sixth year.

It remained unclear whether the main Western-backed opposition delegation would even turn up for the start of the United Nations negotiations. The group says it will not talk with the Assad government while rebel-held areas are being bombed and besieged. 

As night fell the group said that it was seeking urgent clarification from the UN over its demands.

Mr Rocket Launcher: An explosive name

A Turkish man called Rocket Launcher has described the challenges of his unusual name. The businessman is called Roket Atar, which means “rocket thrower” or “rocket launcher”. Mr Atar, 45, whose company makes baby products, said his father chose the name after it was suggested by a friend during military service.

“Many people call me and want to find out whether my name is real,” he told the Anadolu news agency. His only negative experience came after 9/11 when he applied for a German visa. Fearing his name was a coded message, a special team vetted him. They were relieved to learn it was his real name, but still refused him a visa.

Laura Pitel

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