May 10, 2016 / 12:52 PM / in 2 years

Turkish court says insufficient evidence against suspected killer of Russian pilot

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Turkish court has decided there is insufficient evidence to prosecute a man suspected of killing a Russian air force pilot after his plane was shot down by a Turkish jet near the Syrian-Turkish border last November, the man’s lawyer said on Tuesday.

A war plane crashes in flames in a mountainous area in northern Syria after it was shot down by Turkish fighter jets near the Turkish-Syrian border November 24, 2015. Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian-made warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday after repeatedly warning it over air space violations, Turkish officials said, but Moscow said it could prove the jet had not left Syrian air space. Turkish presidential sources said the warplane was a Russian-made SU-24. Turkey's military, which did not confirm the plane's origin, said it had been warned 10 times in the space of five minutes about violating Turkish airspace. Russia's defence ministry said one of its fighter jets had been downed in Syria, apparently after coming under fire from the ground, but said it could prove the plane was over Syria for the duration of its flight, Interfax news agency reported. REUTERS/Sadettin Molla ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1VKC4

Russian defense officials said at the time that the pilot had managed to eject from his Su-24 plane only to be killed by ground fire from militants inside Syria. His navigator survived but a Russian marine was killed during the rescue mission.

Alparslan Celik, who was fighting with a Turkish-backed Turkmen brigade opposing government forces in northern Syria at the time, was detained at the end of March in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir on unrelated charges.

But his lawyer said Celik, who is still in custody, had also been questioned by a prosecutor about his alleged role in the Russian pilot’s death.

“Having looked at the evidence both in favor and against, the prosecutor decided there were no grounds for prosecution,” Murat Ustundag, one of Celik’s lawyers, told Reuters by phone.

Celik is still being held as part of a separate investigation into unauthorized weapons possession, he said.

A deputy prosecutor in the court in Izmir was not available to comment.

There had been hopes that Celik’s detention might help ease strained relations with Russia, which demanded his arrest after he publicly admitted being among a group of fighters who shot the Russian pilot after he ejected from his stricken plane.

Speaking to reporters near the Syrian village of Yamadi on Nov. 24, the day the Russian jet was downed, Celik said he and other fighters opened fire as the pilot and his navigator parachuted to the ground.

Turkey says it shot down the jet in its air space after it ignored repeated warnings. Russia says it was flying over Syria and the strike was unprovoked.

Reporting by Akin Aytekin; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Edciting by Richard Balmforth

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