Turkey says refused access to Russian flight near Syria

Fulya Ozerkan
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Russian servicemen prepare a Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jet before departure on a mission at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015

Russian servicemen prepare a Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jet before departure on a mission at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015 (AFP Photo/Paul Gypteau)

Ankara (AFP) - Turkey on Thursday said that it had refused to allow a Russian reconnaissance plane to overfly its territory near Syria, citing a disagreement over the flight plan, as relations between the two countries hit a post-Cold War low.

The Turkish foreign ministry's statement came a day after Russia accused Turkey of breaching the Open Skies treaty by refusing the plane access.

"An agreement could not be reached on the itinerary for the reconnaissance flight requested by the Russian Federation for 2-5 February 2016," the ministry said.

Moscow had said Wednesday that the Russian plane's flight plan had been transmitted to the Turkish army in advance but authorisation was refused with Ankara.

The 2002 Open Skies treaty, signed by over 30 nations including Russia, Turkey, the EU and the US, establishes a programme of unarmed aerial surveillance flights giving all participants the ability to gather information about military forces and activities of concern to them.

Its aim is to boost mutual understanding and confidence.

In an apparent bid to downplay the significance of the latest incident, the Turkish foreign ministry said Thursday it had allowed Russia to conduct a reconnaissance flight in December after Moscow changed the itinerary as requested by Ankara.

- 'Out of the question' -

The latest salvo in an ongoing dispute between the two countries came some three months after Turkey shot down in November a Russian fighter jet on the Syrian border, sparking a war of words with Moscow which insisted its plane had not violated Turkish airspace.

Omer Celik, spokesman for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said the Russian plane had been refused access for security reasons.

Under the Open Skies treaty, host countries have a say about reconnaissance planes' flight plans, he added.

"But the flight plan requested (by Russia) was a horizontal route along the Syrian border, which also extends up to Hatay," he added.

He was referring to a Turkish province on the Syrian border that is in the same area over which the Russian plane was shot down in November.

"Of course, it is out of the question right now to allow this due to security problems," Celik said.

"We have a fresh crisis with Russia," he said, as he cast doubt on whether the the reconnaissance flight might actually have a military mission across the border in Syria.

Russia launched a massive air campaign in September against rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a long-time Moscow ally who Turkey bitterly opposes.

Turkey has also voiced concern about Russian air raids in northern Syria because of the Turkmen minority in the area, a Turkic-speaking people who have had an uneasy relationship with Assad's regime.

Ankara on Saturday accused Moscow of a new violation of its airspace by a Russian Su-34 plane, a claim that Moscow dismissed as "baseless propaganda."