Missing Russian jet pilot 'alive and well'

BY: BBC
Turkmen rebels showed off what appear to be part of the pilots' evacuation equipment near the northern Syrian village of Yamadi

A Russian pilot who went missing after his jet was shot down by Turkey while taking part in air strikes over Syria was rescued in a 12-hour operation involving special forces, Russia says.

The pilot is "alive and well" at a Russian air base in Syria, it says.

His co-pilot and a marine involved in a rescue were killed.

 

Turkey said the jet had strayed into its airspace but Russian President Vladimir Putin says the plane was flying over Syrian territory.

It is not clear what has happened to the body of the other pilot, who was killed by gunfire as he parachuted from his burning plane.

Tensions have escalated between Russia and Turkey over the incident, but the US, the EU and the UN have all appealed for calm.

President Putin has described the downing of the plane as a "stab in the back", and warned of serious consequences.

Turkey's President Recep Erdogan has defended the action, saying "everyone must respect the right of Turkey to protect its borders", but he stressed he did not want to escalate tensions further.

After Turkey became the first Nato member to shoot down a Russian plane in over half a century, the question now is how will Moscow respond?

President Putin called Turkey an "accomplice of terrorists" and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cancelled a planned trip to Ankara on Wednesday.

But the UN and Nato have urged both sides to de-escalate the crisis. According to Ankara, the Russian Su-24 was warned 10 times about entering Turkish airspace, though Moscow says there was no such communication.

But Turkey also said the violation lasted just 17 seconds. And given signs that a united front was beginning to form against Islamic State, there will be diplomatic pressure on both sides to focus instead on the common threat from the militants.

The tough talk from Ankara and Moscow will no doubt continue - but whether there will be serious retaliation is less clear.

Russian defence officials say the plane never entered Turkish territory, and that Turkish pilots made no attempt to communicate with the Russians before they fired.

Turkey says it warned them repeatedly before shooting the plane down.

Turkey is a member of Nato and the alliance has backed Turkey's version of events. However, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said "diplomacy and de-escalation are important to resolve this situation".

Breaking off military contacts with Turkey, Russia has announced fighter jets will now escort its bombers during air strikes over Syria, and Moscow is sending out its most anti-aircraft missile system, the S-400.

Russia and Turkey have found themselves on opposing sides in Syria's conflict, with Russia supporting President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey is a staunch critic.

The two pilots came under ground fire after they parachuted from their burning plane, Russian defence official Lt-Gen Sergey Rudskoy said.

There had been various reports about the fate of the surviving airman, but Mr Shoygu said Russian and Syrian special forces had managed to rescue him from rebel forces as part of a 12-hour operation.

"The operation ended successfully. The second pilot has been brought to our base. He is alive and well," he was quoted by Ria Novosti state news agency as saying.

Earlier, Lt-Gen Rudskoy also said a rescue team using two Mi-8 helicopters had come under fire and was forced to make an "emergency landing on neutral territory".

"One naval infantryman serving under contract was killed," he said, adding that the rest of the team were safely evacuated to Russia's Humaymim air base near Latakia in Syria.

Syrian rebels say they blew up the helicopter shortly after it landed with an anti-tank missile, releasing footage of the attack.

Russians have been advised not to visit Turkey - a popular tourist destination for Russians - and one of Russia's largest tour operators, Natali Tours, has suspended package holidays there.

There have been loud calls in Russia for economic sanctions and for all flights to Turkey to be cancelled, the BBC's Moscow correspondent, Sarah Rainsford, reports.