Turkish army ‘on alert’ as border tension rises
THE HAGUE / KONYA
The army has deployed armored vehicles near the Syrian border in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa as tension remains high. DHA photoThe Turkish army is on alert in the aftermath of its downing of a Syrian jet, President Abdullah Gül said March 24, amid heightened tension on the border.
Speaking to reporters in The Hague on the sidelines of a nuclear summit, Gül said Turkey had “done what was necessary, in accordance with previously announced rules of engagement.”
Turkish fighter jets shot down a Syrian warplane on March 23 after it reportedly violated Turkish airspace. Gül said the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were on alert on land, sea and air, given the dangerous situation in the neighboring country. According to the TSK, Syrian aircrafts and helicopters have violated Turkish airspace 42 times in the last four months.
“The security forces protected Turkey’s border successfully when a [Syrian plane] crossed into Turkish airspace,” Gül said. “This is a national matter. Therefore, I expressed our confidence that the chief of generals would fulfill his duty.”
Tension is still high in the region, with a number of mortar shells recently landing in Hatay province and Turkish troops near the border returning the fire.
The military also stated that a Syrian missile system had “harassed” a Turkish fighter jet for more than four minutes by locking radar onto it. It said the incident took place on March 23, the same day that the Syrian plane was shot down. It was not immediately clear if the radar-lock happened before or after the plane was shot down. The military said the Turkish F-16 jet was on a routine patrol of the Turkish-Syrian border when it was harassed by SA-5 missile system.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has strongly criticized opposition parties who hinted that the shooting down of the plane could be linked to the upcoming local elections, and questioned their “loyalty to the Turkish state.”
“At a moment when there is not a single concern about election safety and where the Syrian plane’s violation of our airspace is documented, linking this incident to the elections is a show of bad-will and lack of foresight. To be clear, it cannot comply with loyalty to the state and is even treachery,” Davutoğlu told reporters yesterday.
The Syrian plane violated one kilometer into Turkish airspace, he said, adding that Turkey had evidence of this and saying that “nobody should aim to test Turkey’s deterrence.”
Davutoğlu notified U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon and NATO Chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen about the incident and delivered the necessary documents, he said. Turkey’s foreign minister also said a “crisis desk” had been established to observe developments with regard to the Süleyman Shah Tomb inside Syria, amid concerns of an attack by radical groups in the region.
Syria’s official SANA news agency quoted the pilot as saying that he was shot down while 7 kilometers inside Syrian airspace. The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV station, which has a network of reporters around Syria, reported that the pilot of the downed warplane landed in the village of Bahluliya in Latakia province.
On the ground, Syrian rebels recently seized the Kasab village and border crossing with Turkey, as the regime launched fresh air strikes in a bid to halt the opposition advance. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels and their jihadist ally the al-Nusra Front were now in full control of Kasab, the only border crossing with Turkey in the sensitive Latakia province. The crossing was the last functioning border post with Turkey to slip from regime control. Most of Kasab’s majority Armenian residents have fled the village due to the fighting and air attacks, activists said.
“The rebel fighters are in control of Kasab’s main square. There is fighting on the edges of Kasab, but the rebels are in control of the village” and border crossing, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told Agence France-Presse, four days into a rebel offensive. According to a security source in Damascus, however, the village has yet to fall.
“The situation is unclear, the fighting continues, and neither side is in control of the village,” the source said. The battle for Kasab, launched by rebels and the al-Nusra Front on March 21, killed at least 130 regime and opposition fighters over the weekend alone, said the Observatory.
Meanwhile, a cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was killed on March 23 in battles with rebels near the border with Turkey, activists and state media said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Hilal al-Assad, local head of the National Defense Force militia, and seven of his fighters were killed in clashes with the al-Nusra Front and other Islamist brigades. State television confirmed al-Assad’s death, describing him as the head of the National Defense Force in the coastal province of Latakia, where the al-Assad family originates.