Turkish fighter aircraft 'missing'


Turkey lost a warplane over the Mediterranean today, but its prime minister said he could not confirm reports that Syria had shot it down and had apologised.

If the Syrians did down the Turkish F-4 jet, a new crisis could erupt between two Middle Eastern neighbours already at bitter odds over a 16-month-old revolt against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

However, in his first public comments on the warplane's loss, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan took a measured tone, telling reporters he could not say whether the plane had crashed or been shot down. He said he had no word on the fate of the two airmen.

"The chief of general staff has made the necessary statement about the missing plane. I am not saying it was brought down at the point it fell. It is not possible to say this without knowing the exact facts," Mr Erdogan told a news conference.

The Turkish military earlier said one of its planes was missing.

Mr Erdogan said Turkish ships and helicopters were searching for the airmen in co-operation with Syrian vessels.

Nato-member Turkey, 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.

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 UN Security Council approval.

Turkey hosts about 32,000 Syrian refugees and allows the rebel Syrian Free Army to operate from its territory.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy government shelling on opposition strongholds in Idlib, Deraa and Homs provinces, as well as fighting between troops and rebels in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor today, a day when anti-Assad protests often erupt after Muslim prayers.

Elsewhere, four brothers - two brigadier-generals and two colonels - announced their defection from the army in a video posted on the

Internet on Friday, a day after a Syrian air force pilot flew his MiG-21 fighter plane to neighbouring Jordan.