Georgia has arrested a Turkish man allegedly involved in the killing of a Russian pilot in Syria, an incident that led to a fierce row between Russia and Turkey in 2015.
Serkan Kurtuluṣ was arrested in Batumi at the behest of Turkish authorities and is slated for extradition. But Georgian authorities said that Kurtuluṣ's arrest is not connected to the slaying of Russian military pilot Oleg Pershkov on November 24, 2015. “Serkan Kurtuluṣ is wanted for creating and leading an armed criminal group on Turkish territory,” the Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement. The group is accused of racketeering and robbery in Turkey.
Kurtuluṣ and 17 other suspects were tried in Turkey for killing Lieutenant Colonel Peshkov, whose aircraft was shot down by the Turkish air force on that November day. Kurtuluṣ was eventually acquitted, but Turkish prosecutors appealed the verdict in a higher court and the process is still ongoing, Turkish news media have reported.
Peshkov was piloting his aircraft back to an airbase in Syria when it was downed near the Turkish border. Turkey had previously complained about the Russian air force violating its air space and targeting areas populated by Syrian Turkmens, who share an ethnic kinship with Turks. Peshkov and his navigator, Konstantin Murakhtin, ejected themselves from the downed plane but were shot at by Turkmen fighters. Peshkov died in the shootout.
The incident led to the worst crisis in Turkish-Russian relations in recent memory. Russia embargoed key Turkish imports, restricted the hire of Turkish citizens and banned tour packages to Turkey, a major tourism destination for Russians. Relations improved following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan’s 2016 letter to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, which was perceived in Russia as an apology.
A nationalist militant Isparslan Çelik, a leader of the group of Turkmen fighters who fired at Peshkov after he parachuted from the plane, was arrested in 2016 along with Kurtuluṣ and 16 other Turkish citizens for unrelated charges of illegal possession of firearms. Çelik was sentenced to five years in jail.
A lawyer for Çelik told Sputnik Turkey that Kurtuluṣ's extradition had nothing to do with the Russian jet incident. "Kurtuluş was taken into custody in Georgia but there is nothing to do with Peskov's death. It may have been a misunderstanding or confusion at the beginning due to the fact that Kurtuluş had fought in Syria and was a friend of Alparslan Çelik,” said the lawyer, Murat Üstündağ.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi.