Putin Calls Turkish Attack on Warplane a 'Stab in the Back'

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Turkey of a "stab in the back" and warned of "serious consequences" after Turkish military jets today shot down a Russian fighter plane close to the border between Syria and Turkey.

The Russian Su-24 jet was hit by rockets fired from Turkish F16s as it conducted airstrikes on militants in northwest Syria. Turkish officials have said the plane violated Turkey's airspace and that its jets had warned the Russian plane repeatedly to leave.

"Today's losses is connected with a blow, that was delivered as a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists. I cannot qualify what happened today in any other way," Putin said during a televised meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan.

Turkish officials told the United States they shot down the plane after it entered their airspace, two U.S. officials told ABC News. No U.S. forces were involved in the incident, both officials said.

Putin said the Russian plane was operating less than a mile inside the Syrian side of the border when it was hit and Russian officials have said it never crossed into Turkish airspace. Putin said the plane had been striking ISIS militants and had posed no threat to Turkey, which he said was "an obvious fact." Russia's Defense ministry also said it had tried to reach Turkish officials by an emergency hotline before the plane was shot down but was unable to get through.

Putin's words showed Russia had determined it would not let the incident pass without complaint. Initially, Russian officials had said the plane had likely been hit by ground-fire from inside Syria. The fate of the plane's pilots was not immediately clear.

The Russian president went on to accuse Turkey of aiding terror groups by allowing them to house smuggled oil products on Turkish territory, a trade that is a major source of revenue for many militant groups in Syria.

Seemingly in retaliation for the incident, Russia's foreign ministry announced it is advising its citizens not to visit Turkey, which is popular among Russian tourists. Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced he was canceling a planned trip to Turkey in protest of the incident.

Turkey is a NATO member and strongly opposes the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which Russia has been backing with an air campaign for the last two months.

NATO said it will hold an emergency meeting this evening at Turkey's request to discuss the incident. The military alliance follows a principle of collective defense that means if one member is attacked, the entire alliance will respond.

Putin condemned Turkey's decision to involve NATO so quickly, accusing Turkey of acting to "put the alliance in the service of ISIS."

Turkey is known to back some rebel groups in Syria, although it says it does not support ISIS. Russia has been broadly targeting many of the groups opposed to the Assad government, including the Free Syrian Army. Russia refers to most militants opposed to Assad as "terrorists" and uses the name ISIS or Islamic State loosely.

The fate of the plane's pilots was not immediately clear, although Russia's defense ministry said both ejected before the plane crashed. Despite reports that both had been killed by rebels when they landed in Syria, Turkish officials have now said they believe both men are still alive and are being held by rebel groups in Syria. A senior Turkish official told ABC News that Turkish intelligence services are now trying to ensure the recovery of the two pilots by contacting the rebels. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that Turkish authorities were hopeful the two could be returned alive.

Other reports, however, suggested the pilots had been shot by rebels after they ejected. A spokesman for one rebel group, the 10th Brigade in the Coast told the Associated Press, they had shot one of the men as he floated down in his parachute and had recovered his body.

Turkey had already warned Russia to halt its airstrikes in the area close to border where the plane was brought down, on Friday summoning the Russian ambassador and warning of serious consequences if the strikes, which are in support of a Syrian government offensive against Turkmen rebels in the area, continued.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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