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Turkey says Russia is a 'friend' after shooting down jet

Turkish PM scrambles to contain fallout of downing of Russian jet, as Moscow advises tourists against visiting Turkey amid safety fears
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara on 24 November (AFP)

Turkey has described Russia as a "friend and neighbour" as it scrambled to contain the fallout of the downing of a Russian fighter jet it said had strayed into its airspace.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Wednesday insisted Ankara had no intention of cutting diplomatic ties with Moscow, a day after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24, which crashed in northern Syria.

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed a call for Russians to avoid visiting Turkey, a day after calling Turkey an "accomplice of terrorists".

"After such tragic events like the destruction of our plane and the death of our pilot, this is a necessary measure," Putin said in a televised address on Wednesday morning.

His foreign minister, Sergi Lavrov, said the attack was a "planned provocation" but that Russia did not "plan to go to war with Turkey, our attitude toward the Turkish people has not changed".

Both sides have been urged to de-escalate simmering tensions after the incident, which Russia has called "a stab in the back".

In a defiant statement on Wednesday, Russia’s parliament said it would continue its raids over Syria, including those near the border with Turkey.

Turkey is a NATO member and has the second-largest army in the 28-member body – on Tuesday NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg urged Ankara and Moscow to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Putin’s call for citizens to avoid Turkey could be a major blow for its tourism industry, which made nearly $4 billion from the 4.48 million Russian tourists who visited during 2014 alone.

The number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey was already down nearly 20 percent from January to October 2015 compared to last year’s figures thanks to terrorism fears and a downturn in the Russian economy due to Western sanctions over Ukraine.

Pilot 'saved' by Russian and Syrian special forces

In his comments on Wednesday morning, Putin highlighted safety fears surrounding travel to Turkey after the plane - flown by two Russian pilots – was shot down after receiving 10 warnings from the Turkish air force.

One of the pilots was shot dead by fighters in Syria’s coastal Latakia province, where the plane came down.

The dead pilot, named as Rumyantsev Sergei Alexandrovitch, was reportedly a major in the Russian air force, which until the downing had 28 fighter jets stationed in Syria.

The pilot is to be rewarded posthumously with Russia’s highest award for valour, the Hero of Russia medal.

Supporters of the Syrian opposition have demanded an exchange in return for handing over the pilot’s body to Russian authorities.

Activists started a hashtag on Wednesday demanding “#Harmoush In Return For The Body Of The Russian Pilot”.

Hussein Harmoush, referenced in the campaign, is a former Syrian army officer who defected to the opposition Free Syrian Army in early 2011.

He has not been seen since August 2011, when he disappeared from a military camp in Turkey and later appeared on television confessing to his defection.

Harmoush is rumoured to have been killed in detention, but Assad’s government has never confirmed his death.

Putin said on Wednesday that he the second pilot had been “saved” and was now recovering at a Russian airbase in Syria.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed that Russian and Syrian special forces took part in an operation to free the second pilot.

“I would like to thank all our guys who worked at great risk all night," Shoigu said.