A Russian marine has been shot dead by Syrian rebel fighters after his helicopter came under fire during the search for the two pilots from a jet downed by Turkey.
One of the two Russian pilots, who ejected from their Su-24 bomber after it was shot down by Turkey for allegedly violating its airspace, has reportedly been picked up by the Syrian army and returned to a Russian base.
The Syrian rebel Turkmen Brigade claimed on Tuesday it had shot the other pilot out of the sky as he parachuted down, and published pictures and video purporting to show the airman’s body.
Speaking to Europe1 Radio on Wednesday morning, Russia’s ambassador to France said that despite coming down in an area where rebels are active, the second pilot had managed to escape.
“One on board was wounded when he parachuted down and killed in a savage way on the ground by the jihadists in the area and the other managed to escape and, according to the latest information, has been picked up by the Syrian army and should be going back to the Russian airforce base,” Alexandre Orlov said.
The downing of the bomber on the Turkey-Syria border has sparked a major diplomatic crisis between Russia and Turkey, who have put forward conflicting statements regarding the plane’s final movements.
It also launched a major search and rescue operation by the Russian military. Two helicopters were sent to the area where the jet came down in the coastal province of Latakia, but came under fire from local rebels.
Russian defence official Lt-Gen Sergey Rudskoy explained to the BBC how the mission involving two Mi-8 helicopters went disastrously wrong.
“During the operation, one of the helicopters came under small-arms fire, was damaged and made an emergency landing on neutral territory,” he said.
“One naval infantryman serving under contract was killed.”
The rest of the rescue team was evacuated from the area to Russia’s nearest air base in Syria, Humaymim.
But they left behind a malfunctioning helicopter, which the FSA said it destroyed on the ground using an anti-tank missile. The group released a video purporting to show the moment of impact.
Turkey became the first Western or Nato country to shoot down a Russian warplane for more than half a century on Tuesday morning, when it said two F16 fighters encountered two Russian jets which had violated its borders.
In a letter to the UN Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Turkey said the Russian warplanes violated its airspace "to a depth of 1.36 miles and 1.15 miles ... for 17 seconds" just after 9.24am local time.
It said one of the planes then left Turkish airspace and the other one was fired at by Turkish F-16s "in accordance with the rules of engagement" and crashed on the Syrian side of the border.
Russia, which has not previously suffered any high-profile casualties in its bombing raids on Syrian militant groups, insisted the plane stayed over Syria at all times.
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