Turkey tells Russia: we will act if you violate our airspace after it scrambles jets to intercept warplane

Moscow admitted one of its aircraft had overflown the Turkish province of Hatay

Alistair Dawber
Monday 05 October 2015 19:39 BST
A Russian pilot climbs from an SU-25M jet fighter at Hmeimim airbase in Syria
A Russian pilot climbs from an SU-25M jet fighter at Hmeimim airbase in Syria (AP)

Turkey threatened to react with military force to future violations of its airspace by Russian warplanes, after revealing that it scrambled two F-16 fighters on Saturday when a Russian fighter jet briefly crossed the border from Syria.

A meeting of Nato ambassadors was called to discuss the incident after Moscow admitted that one of its aircraft had overflown the Turkish province of Hatay. Moscow’s military push to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus – now in its second week – has caused consternation in the West.

Russian officials blamed a navigation error for the incident, and promised that it would not be repeated. The excuse, and the assurance, was met with scepticism in Western capitals as Turkey, a Nato member, said that a similar incident had taken place on Sunday when a Mig-29 had engaged two Turkish F-16s for more than five minutes, including locking its radar on to one of them.

The Turkish military said that it did not know who the jet belonged to, but the suspicion will fall on Russia, which has attacked rebels close to the Turkish border.

Nato issued a statement of protest at the Russian incursions, adding: “Allies also note the extreme danger of such irresponsible behaviour.”

Meanwhile, there was worldwide condemnation of Isis after it blew up the Arch of Triumph, one of the most prominent monuments in Syria’s 2,000-year-old Roman city of Palmyra, whose remains it has been systematically destroying. Unesco, the UN’s cultural body, said the act showed the group was terrified of history. The perpetrators should be tried and punished as war criminals, it said.

There are fears that if one side shoots down an aircraft belonging to the other side the situation could spin out of control. The Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, accused Moscow of escalating the crisis and declared: “The Turkish armed forces have their orders. The necessary will be done, even if it’s a bird that violates Turkey’s border.Our rules of engagement are very clear.”

Speaking in Moscow, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, questioned the Turkish version of events and said “some facts” needed to be checked. The Russian ambassador to Ankara was summoned to a meeting with Turkish officials yesterday and the foreign ministers of both countries spoke by telephone.

By militarily backing Syria’s President, Moscow has enraged Western leaders, with the situation now sliding towards an old-fashioned East-West conflict. In Brussels yesterday, the Nato secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said: “I call on Russia to fully respect Nato airspace and to avoid escalating tensions with the Alliance. I urge Russia to take the necessary steps to align its efforts with those of the international community in the fight against [Isis].”

Russia fears that the end of Mr Assad’s rule would threaten Moscow’s only military presence in the Mediterranean. Russia views any military opponent of Damascus as a legitimate target, and the West is furious that Russian fighters have hit sites controlled by more moderate opposition groups.

Those insurgent groups in Syria, which operate under the umbrella of Ahrar ash-Sham, an opponent of Isis, called on other Middle Eastern countries to form an alliance against Russia and the Damascus government, which also receives assistance from Iran.

The West is determined to see the end of Mr Assad, whom it accuses of war crimes. Ashton Carter, the US Defence Secretary, said Mr Assad “cannot last” in Syria, and accused Russia of behaviour that “has escalated the civil war”.

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