In First Expression of Regret, Turkish President Says Wishes Downing of Russian Warplane Hadn't Happened

'We are truly saddened by this incident,' Erdogan says; Kremlin says Putin 'fully mobilised' to tackle threat from Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of local administrators at his palace in Ankara, Turkey, Nov. 26, 2015.
AP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday voiced regret over Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane, saying his country was "truly saddened" by the incident and wished it hadn't occurred.

It was the first expression of regret by the strongman leader since Tuesday's incident in which Turkish F-16 jets shot down the Russian jet on grounds that it had violated Turkey's airspace despite repeated warnings to change course. It was the first time in half a century that a NATO member shot down a Russian plane and drew a harsh response from Moscow.

"We are truly saddened by this incident," Erdogan said. "We wish it hadn't happened as such, but unfortunately such a thing has happened. I hope that something like this doesn't occur again."

The downed Russian jet near the Syria-Turkey border, November 24, 2015.
Getty Images

Addressing supporters in the western city of Balikesir, Erdogan said neither country should allow the incident to escalate and take a destructive form that would lead to "saddening consequences."

He renewed a call for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the sidelines of a climate conference in Paris next week, saying it would be an opportunity to overcome tensions.

Erdogan's friendly overture however, came after he again vigorously defended Turkey's action and criticized Russia for its operations in Syria.

"If we allow our sovereign rights to be violated ... then the territory would no longer be our territory," Erdogan said.

Putin denounced the Turkish action as a "treacherous stab in the back," and insisted that the plane was downed over Syrian territory in violation of international law. He has also refused to take telephone calls from Erdogan. Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Friday that the Kremlin had received Erdogan's request for a meeting, but wouldn't say whether such a meeting is possible.

Asked why Putin hasn't picked up the phone to respond to Erdogan's two phone calls, he said that "we have seen that the Turkish side hasn't been ready to offer an elementary apology over the plane incident."

After the incident, Russia deployed long-range S-400 air defense missile systems to a Russian air base in Syria just 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the border with Turkey to help protect Russian warplanes, and the Russian military warned it would shoot down any aerial target that would pose a potential threat to its planes

Russia has since also restricted tourist travel, left Turkish trucks stranded at the border, confiscated large quantities of Turkish food imports and started preparing a raft of broader economic sanctions.

On Saturday Turkey issued a travel warning urging its nationals to delay non-urgent and unnecessary travel to Russia, saying Turkish travelers were facing "problems" in the country. It said Turks should delay travel plans until "the situation becomes clear."

'Putin is fully mobilized'

Meanwhile, in comments which underscore how angry the Kremlin still is over the incident, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin's spokesman, called the behavior of the Turkish air force "absolute madness" and said Ankara's subsequent handling of the crisis had reminded him of the "theatre of the absurd." 

"Nobody has the right to traitorously shoot down a Russian plane from behind," Peskov told Russia's "News on Saturday" TV program, calling Turkish evidence purporting to show the Russian SU-24 jet had violated Turkish air space "cartoons". 

Peskov said the crisis had prompted Putin, whose ministers are preparing retaliatory economic measures against Turkey, to "mobilize" in the way an army does in tense times. 

"The president is mobilized, fully mobilized, mobilized to the extent that circumstances demand," said Peskov. 

"The circumstances are unprecedented. The gauntlet thrown down to Russia is unprecedented. So naturally the reaction is in line with this threat." 

Pro-Islamist demonstrators hold a defaced poster of Vladimir Putin during an anti-Russian protest in Istanbul, Turkey, November 27, 2015.
Reuters

Peskov said Putin was aware of a Turkish request for him to meet President Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the Paris climate change conference next week but gave no indication of whether such a meeting would take place. 

Erdogan on Saturday said the Paris summit could be a chance to repair Ankara's relations with Russia. 

Peskov denied Turkish press reports which said Moscow and Ankara had struck a deal for their warplanes to stop flying along the Syrian-Turkish border, saying military ties between the two countries had been severed and a hot line meant to avoid misunderstandings among their pilots dismantled. 

Peskov, according to the TASS news agency, also spoke of how Erdogan's son had a "certain interest" in the oil industry. Putin has said oil from Syrian territory controlled by Islamic State militants is finding its way to Turkey. 

Erdogan has spoken of slander and asked anyone making such accusations to back up their words with evidence. 

Peskov said he "noted" that Turkey's newly-appointed energy minister, Berat Albayrak, was Erdogan's son-in-law. 

Peskov said there could be up to 200,000 Turkish citizens on Russian soil. 

"What's important is that everyone who is able to use their influence to guarantee at least some predictability in the pattern of Turkey's behavior," said Peskov. "Russian planes should never be shot down."