ANKARA/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Turkey recovered the body of a Russian pilot from northern Syria and presented it to Russian diplomats on Sunday, five days after shooting down his warplane in an incident that wrecked relations between two of the main powers involved in Syria’s war.
A coffin carrying Oleg Peshkov arrived by ambulance on the tarmac of Hatay Airport in southern Turkey near the Syrian border, a Reuters photographer said.
It was flown to the capital Ankara, where according to Russia’s RIA news agency it was met at an airfield by Moscow’s ambassador and military attache. The Russian embassy declined to comment and Turkish officials did not immediately disclose when the body would be repatriated to Russia.
The shooting down of the Russian fighter jet by NATO-member Turkey, the first known incident of its kind since the Cold War, has set back efforts to forge a united front against Islamic State in the weeks since militant group claimed responsibility for mass killings in Paris and blowing up a Russian airliner.
Moscow has responded toward Ankara with fury, calling the episode a pre-planned provocation. President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Saturday imposing punitive economic sanctions against Turkey. Details of Turkish goods that will be banned and other measures under the decree are expected to be announced in coming days.
Since the downing of the plane, Moscow has ramped up air strikes against rebels in Syria near the Turkish border. Civil defense workers in opposition-held territory said dozens of civilians were killed on Sunday in a strike by apparent Russian warplanes on a crowded market in the town of Ariha.
Turkey says it shot down Peshkov’s plane in its air space after it ignored repeated warnings. Russia says it was flying over Syria and was struck unprovoked. The navigator of the two-seat jet survived but a second Russian service member was killed rescuing him from northern Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutgolu said on Sunday that Peshkov’s body had arrived in Turkey overnight, but gave no further details of how it was recovered or brought across the border.
Turkey is part of a coalition of countries led by the United States that have been bombing Islamic State positions in both Syria and Iraq, while also calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Russia, which supports Assad, launched its own separate bombing campaign against Assad’s opponents nearly two months ago. While it says it is also targeting Islamic State, most of its air strikes have been against other Assad opponents, including groups actively supported by Turkey.
Davutoglu called for more military cooperation: “Communication and coordination in Syria operations is needed in order to prevent further incidents, because two different coalition groups are conducting operations in Syrian air space always risk leading to similar incidents,” he said before getting on a plane to Brussels for a meeting on the migrant crisis with EU leaders. He also accused Russia of using anti-Islamic State operations as a pretext to help Assad.
Russia has stepped up strikes in northwestern Syrian areas held by enemies of Assad but not Islamic State.
Sunday’s worst strike killed 43 people in a crowded market in Ariha, said Mohamed Queissi, a rescue worker with the Civil Defense service which operates in rebel-held areas. The bodies of 31 had been identified, with 12 more awaiting identification.
“The vendors were shouting loudly as people were buying and selling and suddenly we heard the sound of the planes and in less than a second the jets struck and there was deadly silence,” said Mohamed Amine Qurabi, 25, a second Civil Defense worker reached by phone in the town.
“I saw people thrown in the street, strewn corpses and terrified children crying and shouting for their parents.”
Earlier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which monitors the conflict said at least 18 people had died and dozens more were wounded, with the death toll expected to rise.
Turkey is a major customer of Russian natural gas exports and a big destination for Russian tourists. Russia buys Turkish exports including produce, having already banned food from the United States and European Union in retaliation for financial sanctions imposed over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.
Russia’s Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said on Sunday Moscow would not boycott international sporting events held in Turkey, but would require maximum security and would limit training trips by Russian athletes there, RIA reported.
Turkey is one of the neighbors most affected by the 4-year-old civil war in Syria, having hosted 2 million refugees while calling loudly for the downfall of Assad. It has been angered by the Russian military campaign in Syria, complaining in particular in recent weeks about Moscow’s targeting of ethnic Turkmen rebels in the border area, who are close kin with Turks.
Pro-government newspaper Sabah Daily reported that Turkey had tightened security along its border with Syria on Saturday, deploying additional tanks, armored personnel vehicles and other weapons alongside its border with Syria. A Turkish official said he could not confirm this.
Syrian state media quoted Assad as telling a senior Iranian official on Sunday that his enemies had increased funding and weapons supplies to insurgents.
Reporting by Dasha Afanasieva and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman and Lidia Kelly in Moscow; Editing by Peter Graff