JERUSALEM—Russian special forces in Syria have reportedly stormed a Syrian town near the Turkish border in a hunt for the Turkmen rebel leader who claimed he and his men shot the pilot of a Russian bomber as he was parachuting to earth after his plane was shot down by Turkish warplanes in November.
The British newspaper, the Independent, reported Thursday that the search is being carried out in an area in Syria’s Latakia Province, which recently fell to the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The success of the army’s offensive is attributed in large part to Russian air strikes.
The wanted man, Alparslan Celik, a Turkish citizen, boasted after the incident that he and his men had fired at the two Russian airmen as they descended by parachute, killing them both. "Our comrades opened fire into the air and both died in the air," he told Turkish reporters. "There is no place for a person who has bombed civilian Turkmen every day."
However, one of the two airmen was rescued alive by Russian soldiers shortly afterwards, reportedly with the assistance of Hezbollah militiamen. The body of the second airman was subsequently recovered. Another Russian soldier was killed by rebel fire when a search-and-rescue helicopter seeking the missing airmen touched down in the area.
Turkmen are ethnic Turks who have lived in Syria and other parts of the region since antiquity. Celik himself is not part of a Turkmen community in Syria but is a Turkish ultra-nationalist. He is reportedly a member of the Grey Wolves, which has been described as neo-fascist and aspires to unification of all Turkic people. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned the Russians not to target "our Turkmen brothers."
Negotiations aimed at resolving the Syrian civil war, which has taken at least 250,000 lives and displaced millions of people, were to have begun Monday but were postponed until Friday because of differences over who should be invited and other disagreements.
The Syrian government has agreed to participate in the talks, to be held in Geneva under United Nations auspices, but there is disagreement over who would represent opposition groups.
The Syrian Kurdish PYD party, which is affiliated with the YPG militia, was struck from the invitation list at the insistence of Turkey, which views the PYD as a terrorist group.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a press briefing this week that the decision to exclude the PYD, "at least in this initial round of talks", was taken by Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, in an attempt to define which rebel forces would represent the opposition, going forward.
"We respect that process," said Toner.
A Kurdish spokeswoman, Ilham Ahmed, attacked de Mistura’s decision. "He was tasked with forming the delegations in a balanced way that represents all the elements of Syrian society. When the whole of northern Syria (where Kurds are concentrated) is excluded it means they [the UN] are the ones dividing Syria."
Both the United States and Russia back the negotiations. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said the PYD could join the talks at a later stage.
Saudi-backed opposition groups have said they will not attend the conference unless Assad agrees to a cease-fire as long as the talks go on.