MOSCOW (AP) — Sharply raising the stakes in Moscow's spat with Ankara, Russia's top military brass on Wednesday accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family of personally profiting from oil trade with Islamic State militants.
The bluntly-worded accusations follow Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane at the Syrian border last week, the first time a NATO member shot down a Russian aircraft in more than half a century. The fierce personal attack on Erdogan reflects the Kremlin's anger and signals that Russia-Turkey tensions will likely continue to escalate.
The Russian Defense Ministry invited dozens of foreign military attaches and hundreds of journalists to produce what they said were satellite and aerial images of thousands of oil trucks streaming from the IS-controlled deposits in Syria and Iraq into Turkish sea ports and refineries.
"The main customer for this oil stolen from Syria and Iraq is Turkey," said Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov. "The top political leadership of the country, President Erdogan and his family, is involved in this criminal business."
The Turkish leader has denied Russian President Vladimir Putin's earlier claims of Turkey's involvement in oil trade with the IS, and has pledged to step down if Moscow proves its accusations.
"No one has the right to make such a slander as to suggest that Turkey buys Daesh's oil. Turkey has not lost its moral values as to buy oil from a terror organization," Erdogan said in Wednesday's speech at Qatar University, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, shortly after the Russian Defense Ministry made the claims. "Those who make such slanderous claims are obliged to prove them. If they do I would not remain on the presidential seat for one minute. But those who make the claim must also give up their seat if they can't prove it."
The Russian plane's downing has badly strained the relationship between the two nations that had earlier developed close economic ties. Russia has responded by deploying long-range air defense missiles at its air base in Syria and slamming Turkey with an array of economic sanctions.
Erdogan warned Wednesday that "if Russia's disproportionate reactions continue, we will be forced to take our own measures."
Antonov, meanwhile, said that IS militants make $2 billion a year from the illegal oil trade, and he squarely put the personal blame on Erdogan.
"Maybe I'm speaking too bluntly, but the control over that thievish business could only be given to the closest people," Antonov said, adding that Erdogan's son heads a top energy company and his son-in-law has been named Turkey's energy minister.
"What a great family business!" Antonov said with sarcasm. "Obviously, no one but the closest people could be entrusted to control such dealings."
Antonov didn't provide any specific evidence to back up the claims of personal involvement of Erdogan and his family in the oil trade with the IS.
"Turkish leaders, including Mr. Erdogan, won't step down and they won't acknowledge anything even if their faces are smeared with the stolen oil," he added.
A Russian parliament member, Vasily Likachev, told state news agency Tass that Moscow has sufficient evidence on oil sales to file a claim with the UN International Court of Justice.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner categorically rejected Russia's allegations.
"We never said oil smuggling from ISIL is not a problem," he said, using an alternative acronym for IS. But "there is no Turkish government complicity in some operation to buy illegal oil from ISIL. We just don't believe that to be true in any way, shape or form."
Lt.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian military's General Staff said Russian airstrikes on the IS oil infrastructure in Syria had halved the militants' profits. He said the Russian air raids have destroyed 32 oil production facilities, 11 refineries and 1,080 oil trucks since they began on Sept. 30.
Turkey has said it downed the Russian plane after it intruded its airspace for 17 seconds despite numerous warnings, and has refused to apologize for the shoot-down. The Russian pilot was killed by militants after bailing out from the plane and a Russian marine was also killed on a rescue mission to retrieve a second pilot.
Russia has insisted that its plane remained in Syrian airspace and has denounced the Turkish action as a "treacherous stab in the back."
Erdogan has voiced regret over the incident, but Putin has made it clear that he expects a formal apology. The Russian leader refused to meet with Erdogan at a global climate in Paris, which they both attended Monday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that he would agree to meet with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on the sidelines of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting of foreign ministers in Belgrade, the Serbian capital.
"We will meet with the Turkish minister of foreign affairs, we will hear what he has to say," Lavrov said after talks with his Cypriot counterpart in Nicosia.
He said the best way to stop the oil trade from IS-controlled territory into Turkey would be to close the Turkey-Syria border.
"We should do the obvious thing to stop the (oil) trade by closing the Turkish-Syrian border," Lavrov said, adding that Russian president Putin has made a similar proposal already in Paris.
"As far as I know, the United States and the anti-terror coalition already have invited Turkey to fulfill this and close the border, but efforts by just one state will not be enough and we should help," Lavrov said.
Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus. Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.