NATO has called a Russian violation of Turkish airspace "irresponsible behavior" and an "extreme danger." The alliance has called for an immediate end to Russian airstrikes on the Syrian opposition and civilians.
Russia's violation of Turkish airspace and harassing of an F-16 aircraft on the border with Syria over the weekend shows Moscow's "military actions have reached a more dangerous level," NATO said at an emergency meeting on Monday.
That most recent incident was Sunday when the Turkish military command said a MiG-29 fighter of unknown origin threatened two Turkish planes by locking its radar on them for 5 minutes and 40 seconds. The military said the incident occurred while 10 F-16s were patrolling the Turkish-Syrian border.
Moscow says the Russian air force doesn't operate any MiG-29s in Syria. The Syrian air force reportedly flies MiG-29s.
But NATO said Russian Su-30 and Su-24 aircraft had positively violated Turkish airspace Saturday and Sunday in the Hatay region.
"The aircraft in question entered Turkish airspace despite Turkish authorities' clear, timely and repeated warnings," it said. "In accordance with NATO practice, Turkish fighter aircraft responded to these incursions by closing to identify the intruder, after which the Russian planes departed Turkish airspace."
"Allies strongly protest these violations of Turkish sovereign airspace, and condemn these incursions into and violations of NATO airspace," NATO said. "Allies also note the extreme danger of such irresponsible behavior."
Both Russia and Turkey downplayed the incident, saying it had been a mistake on the part of the Russian pilots.
Turkey: a mistaken close call
A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack plane reportedly strayed into Turkish airspace during a sortie over Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Moscow had admitted the error. "They said they are respectful of Turkey's borders and that it would not happen again," Davutoglu told Haber Turk television channel.
But the Turkish premier warned that in case of intrusions, which call for treating anyone approaching its border from Syria as an enemy, the military has been directed to open fire.
"The Turkish armed forces have their orders," he said, adding that it will take the necessary steps "even if it's a bird that violates Turkey's border. ... Our rules of engagement are clear."
The incursion comes only days after Russia began a bombing campaign against what it says are targets belonging to "Islamic State" and al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, the Nusra Front.
The United States and its allies have voiced concern the airstrikes since last Wednesday have largely targeted "moderate" rebel groups in central and northwestern Syria in a bid to prop up the Assad regime.
The US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" is continuing discussions with Russia over how to "deconflict" airspace over Syria in order to avoid an accident.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the US was "quite concerned" by Russia's action.
"Given the stakes and sensitivity around the Russian military action in that region of the world, I think our concerns are well-founded," Earnest said.
The incursion could have led to Turkish jets firing on the Russian aircraft. Turkey's rules of engagement allow for its air force to fire on Syrian jets after Syria shot down one of its planes in 2012. In May, Turkey shot down a Syrian jet after it entered Turkish airspace.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia's actions could have led to a serious escalation with Turkey, NATO's second largest army.
"We're greatly concerned about it because it is precisely the kind of thing that had Turkey responded under its rights could have resulted in a shoot-down," Kerry said.
The incident over the weekend is the latest in a series of what NATO has called Russian provocations along the alliance's border since relations deteriorated over the conflict in Ukraine.
cw/cmk (AFP, dpa, Reuters)