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Turkey apologizes for 2015 downing of Russian fighter plane, Kremlin says

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologized to Russian leader Vladimir Putin over the downing of a Russian air force jet by Turkey's military in November.

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    A combination picture taken from video shows a war plane crashing in flames in a mountainous area in northern Syria after it was shot down by Turkish fighter jets near the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015.
    Haberturk/Reuters TV/File
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Turkey and Russia have started to make amends.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologized to Russian leader Vladimir Putin for the last year’s downing of a Russian Su-24 fighter jet Ankara said traveled into its airspace along the Syrian border.

"I want to once again express my sympathy and deep condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who died and say: ‘I'm sorry,' " the Kremlin, in a statement, said Mr. Erdogan wrote in the apology letter.

Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Erdoğan, confirmed the letter was delivered to Mr. Putin, though Dr. Kalin did not refer to an explicit apology. He said Erdogan expressed regret in the letter, and asked the pilot’s family to “excuse us.”

According to the Kremlin, Erdoğan said his country would compensate the pilot’s family.

The apology is the first step in resuming diplomacy between the two countries, as Putin said the sanctions were not to be lifted until Erdoğan apologized. The apology is part of Turkey’s larger effort to improve ties with its neighbors, as the Syrian civil war, the self-proclaimed Islamic State group, and the migrant crisis roil the region.

The Su-24 jet, part of Russia’s military campaign against Syrian rebels, was shot down in November. Turkey said the plane entered Turkish airspace, ignored repeated warnings, and was fired at. Russia, for its part, denied these claims.

One of the two pilots was killed by a Turkish citizen, who authorities are investigating for the crime, according to the letter. A Russian marine was also killed in the rescue operation to retrieve to co-pilot.

Putin called the downing of the warplane “a treacherous stab in the back.” The Kremlin responded by deploying long-range air-defense missiles to its base in Syria, and warning Turkey it would destroy any target that threatened a Russian aircraft.

It also imposed sanctions on Turkey, damaging a Turkish economy that is dependent on its northern neighbor. Russia was the largest destination for Turkish exports, and the largest source for Turkish imports. It also hosted more than 5 million Russian tourists in 2014, as Dominique Soguel reported for The Christian Science Monitor. Following the downing of warplane, Russia responded with a raft of economic sanctions and required visas to travel between the two countries. It banned the sale of package tours and most Turkish food exports, and introduced restrictions against Turkish construction companies, a force in the Russian market. It also froze the construction of a pipeline to transport gas from Russia to Europe via Turkey.

Russia said it would only lift the measures if Erdoğan personally apologized.

With Erdoğan's letter Monday, the Kremlin did not announce when the sanctions would end. 

Nevertheless, the drafting of the letter represents not just Turkey’s efforts to improve its economy, but also an effort to ease tensions around the Syrian conflict, where the two governments support opposing sides. Putin supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Ankara supports Syrian rebels.

With the threat of the Islamic State group and the migrant crisis, Turkey has also sought other regional allies. After a six-year rift with Israel that began when Israeli marines stormed a humanitarian flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip, Ankara and Jerusalem said earlier Monday they have agreed to resume diplomatic relations.

These actions are in line with a pledge by Turkey’s new Prime Minister Binali Yildirim last month to “increase its friends and decrease its enemies,” in what appeared to be a slight at his predecessor, Ahmet Davutoğlu. Mr. Davutoğlu insisted Assad’s departure was the only way to stabilize Syria, pitting it against Moscow.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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