AMMAN - Reuters
Syrian President Bashar Assad. AFP photo
Syria shot down a Turkish warplane over the Mediterranean yesterday and Ankara
warned it would respond decisively to the incident that threatened to open a new international dimension in the 16-month revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria said the Turkish aircraft was flying low, well inside Syrian territorial waters when it was shot down.
With the second biggest army in NATO, a force hardened by nearly 30 years of fighting Kurdish rebels, Turkey would be a formidable foe for the Syrian army which is already struggling to put down a 16-month-old revolt. But Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's initial comments and subsequent statement on the downing of the F-4 jet were measured in tone. He said Turkish and Syrian forces were working together to search for the two missing crew of the aircraft.
"As a result of information obtained from the evaluation of our concerned institutions and from within the joint search and rescue operations with Syria, it is understood that our plane was brought down by Syria," Erdogan's office said in a statement.
"Turkey will present its final stance after the incident has been fully brought to light and decisively take the necessary steps," the office said after a two-hour emergency meeting between prime minister, the chief of general staff, the defence, interior and foreign ministers, the head of national intelligence and the commander of the air force.
Turkish media had reported earlier that Syria had apologised for the incident, but Erdogan made no mention of any apology.
Violence raged unabated inside Syria, which appears to be sliding into a sectarian-tinged civil war pitting majority Sunni
Muslims against Assad's minority Alawite sect. Turkey fears the fighting if unchecked could unleash a flood of refugees over its own border and ignite regional sectarian conflict.
Ankara, which had drawn close to Syria before the uprising against Assad, turned against the Syrian leader when he responded violently to pro-democracy protests inspired by popular upheavals elsewhere in the Arab world. Turkey now gives refuge to the rebel Free Syrian Army on its frontier with Syria.
Erdogan, whose emnity with Assad has assumed a strongly personal nature, gave no hint what action he might contemplate.
A statement by the Syrian military said the Turkish plane was flying low, just one kilometre off the Syrian coast, when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The plane fell in Syrian waters 10 kilometers west of the village of Um al-Touyour.
"The navy of the two countries have established contact. Syrian naval vessels are participating along with the Turkish side in the search operation for the missing pilots," it said.
Syria has some of the most sophisticated air defences in the Middle East, supplied by Russia.
Turkish state television interviewed witnesses on the country's Mediterranean coast, near the Syrian border, who said they saw two low-flying fighter jets pass overhead in the morning in the direction of Syrian waters but only one return. Ankara
has previously floated the possibility of setting up some kind of safe haven or humanitarian corridor inside Syria, which would entail military intervention, but has said it would undertake no such action without U.N. Security Council approval.