NATO accuses Russia of deliberately violating Turkey air space
BEIRUT - The secretary general of NATO on Tuesday accused Russia of deliberately violating Turkish air space in its bombing campaign in Syria, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had lost patience with Moscow's behaviour.
Russian fighter jets entered Turkish air space in two separate incidents at the weekend, prompting Ankara to summon the Russian ambassador twice to protest both violations.
Meanwhile, the Turkish military has said its fighter jets were harassed by a MIG-29 plane from an unidentified country close to Syria both on Sunday and Monday.
The anger over Russia's air incursions has intensified controversy over its bombing campaign on Syria which the West and Turkey fears is aimed at keeping President Bashar al-Assad in power.
"For us, this does not look like an accident, it is a serious violation," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
"The violations were for a long time compared to previous violations of airspace we have seen elsewhere in Europe," he said.
Turkey and Russia have long been at loggerheads over the Syrian conflict, with Ankara seeking the ousting of Assad as Moscow does everything to keep him in power.
In his toughest remarks yet against Russia in the crisis, Erdogan accused Moscow and its ally Iran of working to maintain the "state terror" of Assad.
Referring to the incursions into Turkish air space, he said "some undesirable steps have been taken and it does not befit Turkey to accept this."
"It is of course not possible to remain patient about this," said Erdogan, speaking on a state visit to Belgium.
Russia and Turkey have in recent years sought to step up cooperation, agreeing to build a new gas pipeline beneath the Black Sea and Turkey's first nuclear power plant, while targeting $100 billion in bilateral trade from 2023.
But Erdogan warned that Russia risked losing Turkey as a friend if its behaviour continued.
"If Russia loses a friend like Turkey with whom it has a lot of cooperation it is going to lose a lot of things. It needs to know this," he added.
Russia says it is striking against Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists and other terrorist groups in Syria after a conspicuous military-build up in the last weeks that raised international concern.
But the West and Turkey have accused Russia of striking at US-backed moderate rebels who have been working to overthrow Assad.
US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter expressed disappointment over the lack of new talks with Russia aimed at preventing incidents in the skies as the US-led coalition also bombs ISIS targets.
ISIS has taken advantage of the chaos that has engulfed Syria since an uprising began in March 2011 with protests against Assad's regime.
The Russian operations come more than a year after a US-led coalition began bombing ISIS in Syria in a bid to destroy the group.
The advance of the extremists across Syria added to the exodus of refugees into neighbouring countries, including Turkey which is now hosting almost two million Syrians.
The EU said it would step up resettling refugees now in Turkey and help reinforce Turkish coastguard patrols under a crisis plan discussed during talks with Erdogan on Monday.
Russia has acknowledged one air incursion incident into Turkey on Saturday, which it blamed on "unfavourable weather conditions".
"There is no need to look for some conspiracy theories," the defence ministry said of the incident, which it added lasted "several seconds".
According to NATO, Turkish airspace was violated by Russian SU-30 and SU-24 aircraft in the southern Hatay region on Saturday and Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Turkish military said its F-16 jets were harassed and put on radar lock by an unidentified MIG-29 aircraft on the Syrian border Monday.
But it was unclear if the incident -- the second of its kind in two days -- was linked to Russia.
Meanwhile the Kremlin denied suggestions Russia is planning to send ground troops to Syria and said it will not support Russian volunteers willing to take part in the conflict.
Syrian state television said Tuesday that Russian warplanes had struck ISIS targets in and around the ancient city of Palmyra for the first time.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the Palmyra strikes killed at least 15 ISIS fighters and injured dozens more.
But Russian ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said that reports of air strikes on Palmyra were "absolute lies".
On Sunday, the jihadists blew up the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, prompting new outrage at the destruction of the UNESCO World Heritage site.
A Syrian military source said that the Russian operations "are still in the first stage, but will expand as part of an operation lasting several months".