Syria downed aircraft with no warning, says Turkey

Mon, Jun 25, 2012, 01:00

ANKARA/AMMAN – Turkey has accused Syria of shooting down a military reconnaissance jet in international airspace without warning. It has called a Nato meeting to discuss a response to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Amid growing acrimony between the once-friendly neighbours, Syria said its forces had shot dead “terrorists” infiltrating its territory from Turkey which, along with western and Arab nations, has backed the cause of Syrians fighting Dr Assad.

Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the search for two missing pilots was still under way, in co-ordination with the Syrian authorities. He denied it was a “joint” operation.

He said the RF-4 Phantom jet had been clearly marked as Turkish and dismissed Syria’s assertion it had not identified the aircraft before opening fire.

Mr Davutoglu said he also planned to set out Turkey’s case at the United Nations Security Council where Western powers are seeking, against Russian and Chinese opposition, to push through a motion that could allow stronger measures against Dr Assad. Moscow fears this might lead to military action that could undermine its interests in Syria.

In Washington, secretary of state Hillary Clinton strongly condemned Syria’s “brazen and unacceptable act” and vowed close US co-operation with Turkey as part of “our broader efforts to promote a democratic transition in Syria”.

The shooting down of the jet “is yet another reflection of the Syrian authorities’ callous disregard for international norms, human life, and peace and security”, she said in a statement following a conversation on Saturday with Mr Davutoglu.

Syrian tanks and artillery shelled the eastern city of Deir al-Zor on Sunday, killing at least 20 people in the second day of bombardment in the oil-producing region, amid heavy fighting with anti-Assad insurgents, opposition activists said.

Mr Davutoglu said the jet was unarmed and had been on a solo mission to test domestic radar systems, but acknowledged it had briefly crossed Syrian airspace 15 minutes before it was hit.

“Our plane was shot at a distance of 13 sea miles from Syria’s border in international airspace,” Mr Davutoglu said.

“According to the radar images, our plane lost contact with headquarters after it was hit and, because the pilot lost control, it crashed into Syrian waters after making abnormal movements,” he said. “Throughout this entire period no warning was made to our plane.”

Some analysts said the aircraft, in violating Syrian airspace at a time of great sensitivity, could in fact have been testing Syria’s Russian-supplied radar and air defences, which would be an obstacle to any possible Western armed action.

The foreign ministry said Turkey knew the coordinates of its jet’s wreckage, 1,300m underwater, but had not found it.

Syria, formally at war with Israel and the target of Israeli air raids in the past, has said the plane was flying fast and low, just one kilometre off its coast, when it was shot down as an unidentified intruder. It was only later found to be Turkish.

Turkey shelters the rebel Free Syria Army and hosts 32,000 Syrian refugees on its south-eastern border with Syria, some 50km from where the Turkish aircraft was shot down. But it denies providing arms for the insurgents.

Syria’s state news agency said Syrian forces had confronted “terrorists” who had crossed the Turkish border into the coastal province of Latakia and killed several of them on Sunday.

Syria and Turkey share a border 900km long.

As if to underline its military reach, Turkey’s military announced it had carried out air strikes against nine Kurdish militant targets in northern Iraq in the past three days. – (Reuters)