Beirut: In a dangerous escalation in the Syrian conflict, a Russian warplane has been shot down by Turkish fighter jets in Syria near the Turkish border, after it violated the nation’s air space.
It was shown plummeting towards an area known as Turkmen Mountain near the town of Bayirbucak in the northwest of Syria near the Turkish border.
The Turkish military said the aircraft had been warned 10 times in the space of five minutes about violating Turkish airspace. Officials said a second plane had also approached the border and been warned.
“The data we have is very clear. There were two planes approaching our border, we warned them as they were getting too close,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters.
“We warned them to avoid entering Turkish airspace before they did, and we warned them many times. Our findings show clearly that Turkish airspace was violated multiple times. And they violated it knowingly,” the official said.
Footage showed the two pilots parachuting from the burning jet before it crashed. Some local media reports indicated at least one pilot was “in the hands of locals”.
Reuters is reporting that a video sent by a Syrian rebel group claims to show a Russian pilot immobile and badly wounded on the ground.
“A Russian pilot,” a voice is heard saying as a group of men gather around him. “God is great,” a voice is heard saying.
An official from the group says the pilot is dead.
Russian officials confirmed that a Russian warplane had been shot down but claimed it had been flying over Syria and had not violated Turkish airspace.
The plane was likely shot down “due to shelling from the ground,” the Russian Ministry of Defence said.
The Russian Defence Ministry said the plane was one of more than three-dozen fixed-wing aircraft flying sorties in Syria as part of Russia’s two-month old bombing campaign there. It is the first Russian plane to crash in that time.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman called the downing of a Russian Su-24 warplane in Syria a “very serious incident”, but said it was too early to draw conclusions, according to Reuters.
“It is just impossible to say something without having full information,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters.
Tensions between Turkey and Russia escalated early last month when Russian warplanes violated Turkish air space twice – on October 3 and 4 – violations Russia said had happened by accident due to weather conditions.
Since it began its air campaign in Syria to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad on September 30, Russia has been harshly criticised for pursuing mostly opposition groups fighting to overthrow President Assad, as opposed to the Islamic State terrorist group it says it is targeting.
But in recent days, Russia had shifted its air campaign in an effort to mimic the US-led anti-ISIS coalition’s recent offensive to target ISIS-run oil and natural gas infrastructure, the Institute for the Study of War reported.
Without specifying the incident, Turkey indicated it would take the issue to the United Nations and NATO.
“Necessary initiatives will be taken at NATO, UN and at the level of countries concerned by the foreign ministry upon instructions from Mr Prime Minister,” a statement from Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s office said.
Over the weekend, Russia’s Ministry of Defence reported its fighter jets had carried out 141 combat sorties “engaging 472 terrorist objects in the Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Latakia, Hama, Homs, Raqqah, and Deir al-Zor provinces”.
They eliminated “columns of petrol tank vehicles and oil production plants in the oil-bearing regions in the north and east of Syria …These facilities in the districts of Palmyra, Deir al-Zor and Raqqa are controlled by terrorists and constitute their main source of income,” the Ministry said in a statement.
According to groups monitoring the Syrian war, Russian airstrikes had killed more than 400 civilians since they began in September.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the death toll from September 30 to November 20 had reached 403 civilians, including 97 children, while another group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said the toll was as high as 526, including 137 children.
Russia denied the civilian casualty toll and criticised the “so-called fake ‘human rights observatories’ and other propaganda organisations”.
At least 250,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war, more than four million Syrians have fled their homes, mostly to neighbouring countries, while a further 7.6 million have been displaced.
Human rights groups say it is the Assad regime, rather than the Islamic State group that is responsible for the majority of deaths in Syria, in particular through its use of barrel bombs.
The Syrian government denies the allegations.