Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an exclusive interview Thursday with FRANCE 24, said his country “does not want tensions with Russia” after Turkish planes downed a Russian fighter near the Syrian border.
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Erdogan, speaking to FRANCE 24’s Marc Perelman in the Turkish capital, Ankara, struck a conciliatory tone but declined to apologise for Tuesday's incident, which has further heightened tensions in the conflict-ridden region.
He restated Turkey’s stance that the Russian plane “ignored repeated warnings over five minutes” to leave Turkish airspace and had failed to identify itself.
“Had we known it was a Russian plane we may have acted differently,” he said. “But our pilots know the rules of engagement and have to do their duty to protect Turkish airspace”.
The Turkish leader said he had personally told Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G20 meeting to end Russian incursions into Turkey’s airspace, warning that such incidents were likely to occur.
He added: “No sovereign state can be expected to give up its right to protect [its airspace]”.
Russian officials have reacted furiously to the plane’s downing on Tuesday, which Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described as a “planned provocation”.
The Russian government said Thursday it was preparing a raft of retaliatory economic measures and urged all Russian nationals to leave Turkey.
Moscow disputes Turkish claims that the Russian plane entered Turkish airspace, and has demanded a formal apology.
Erdogan said Turkey had communicated all military data on the incident to Russian military authorities, adding that “data provided by our NATO allies confirm our own”.
Sidestepping questions about whether he planned to apologise, the Turkish leader said Russia had failed to communicate its own data and that Putin had ignored his phone calls.
“We need to talk about what happened [...], but Putin has not returned my call,” he said.
Ankara and Moscow are on opposing sides in the four-year Syrian conflict, with Turkey bitterly opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Russia is one of his last remaining allies.
The Turkish president said he was irked by Russian claims that Turkey had helped finance the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group by purchasing its oil, describing the allegations as “slander”.
He stated that Ankara bought most of its fuel from Russia.
Erdogan said a joint military operation with the US was underway to secure the Syrian border and ensure militants and supplies do not reach the IS group.
Rejecting allegations of indulgence towards the jihadist outfit, he said it was Russia – not Turkey – that was failing to strike the IS jihadists.
“Russia and Iran back Assad, but are they fighting Daesh? The answer is ‘no’,” he said, referring to the Islamist group by a derogatory Arabic term.
He also warned Turkey’s Western allies against arming Kurdish militant groups such as the PKK and the Syria-based YPG, which have done most of the fighting against the IS extremists on the ground but are also Turkey’s hereditary foes.
“We have to fight all terrorist groups, and not arm one to fight another,” he said.
On the vexed question of Syrian refugees crossing Turkey’s border with the European Union, Erdogan noted that his country had taken in “2.5 million refugees whereas Europe is panicking with 300,000”.
He restated his aim to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria to ensure that those displaced by the conflict don’t have to leave their country.
Referring to the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, he also called for greater cooperation between Western and Turkish intelligence agencies to ensure terrorists do not infiltrate refugee groups.