ANKARA — North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) member Turkey on Tuesday shot down a Russian fighter jet on the Syrian border, an act President Vladimir Putin said would have “serious consequences” for ties between two key protagonists in the Syria war.
The Turkish army said the aircraft was shot down by two F-16s after violating Turkish airspace 10 times within a five-minute period, an account challenged by Moscow which said it was over Syria.
Turkish television pictures showed the jet exploding and crashing in a ball of flames into a Syrian mountain.
Turkish media said one pilot had been captured by rebel forces in Syria after both ejected by parachute while Syrian opposition sources said one was dead and another missing. Television pictures showed two white parachutes descending to the ground.
Nato has called an emergency meeting over the incident, the first of its kind since Russia launched air strikes in Syria in September, to the consternation of the West.
The presence of military aircraft from Russia, the US, France, Turkey and a clutch of Gulf states in Syrian skies had long raised fears of an incident that could quickly escalate into a major diplomatic and military crisis.
With a major diplomatic crisis looming between two states on opposing sides in the Syria conflict, Russia angrily insisted its fighter jet never had entered Turkish airspace.
The shooting down of the war jet was “a stab in the back committed by accomplices of terrorists”, Mr Putin said at a meeting with Jordanian King Abdullah in Moscow.
Mr Putin said the fighter jet fell in Syrian territory 4km from the border with Turkey and “did not in any way threaten Turkey”.
“Today’s tragic event will have serious consequences for Russian-Turkish relations,” he warned.
The Turkish army said the downing took place over the Yayladagi district of Turkey’s Hatay province on the border with Syria.
“The aircraft violated Turkish air space 10 times in five minutes despite warnings,” the army said in a statement, adding it was shot down “according to the rules of engagement”.
Russia summoned the Turkish military attaché in Moscow while Ankara summoned Moscow’s charge d’affaires to the foreign ministry.
“Everyone must know that it is our international right and national duty to take any measure against whoever violates our air or land borders,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
Turkey’s Dogan news agency broadcast footage of what it said was Russian helicopters flying over Syrian territory in an apparent search for the lost men. Later television reports said Syrian rebels had shot down a Russian helicopter.
The incident came as Russian and Syrian jets are waging a heavy bombing campaign against targets in northern Syria while the US-led coalition continues its own air strikes.
Turkey has expressed anger at the operation, saying it is aimed at buttressing the Syrian regime and has displaced thousands of Turkmen Syrians, an ethnic minority in the area and strong allies of Ankara.
Russia insists its air strikes are aimed against Islamic State jihadists, who are also being targeted by the US-led coalition.
At Ankara’s request, Nato allies will hold an “extraordinary” meeting on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the incident, an alliance official said. “Nato is monitoring the situation closely. We are in contact with Turkish authorities.”
Analysts said on Tuesday there will be a push to de-escalate the situation.
Russian fighter jets entered Turkish airspace in two separate incidents in October, prompting Ankara to summon the Russian ambassador twice in protest. Turkey and Russia have long been at loggerheads over the Syrian conflict, with Ankara seeking Mr Assad’s overthrow while Moscow is fighting to keep him in power. The Turkish military in October also shot down a Russian-made drone that had entered its airspace. But Moscow denied the drone belonged to its forces. It remains to be seen what action Turkey could call for at Nato.
Turkey in July invoked Nato’s rarely used article four — which allows any member to request a meeting of all 28 Nato ambassadors — over its campaign against Kurdish rebels.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is due to visit Turkey on Wednesday in a bid to smooth ties and find a joint approach to finding peace in Syria.
Along with Saudi Arabia and the US, Turkey and Russia are taking part in talks in Vienna that aim to narrow differences on the Syrian conflict and have taken on an extra importance after the Paris attacks.
A Turkish foreign ministry official said Mr Lavrov’s visit would go ahead as planned: “There is no change in the programme.”