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Turkey: Syria shot down plane in 'international airspace'

June 24, 2012 |  4:49 am

Turkish plane downed
BEIRUT--Syria shot down a Turkish military jet in “international airspace” without warning after the aircraft had inadvertently wandered into Syrian skies, Turkey’s foreign minister said Sunday.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s comments to Turkey’s TRT television directly contradict Syria’s version that it downed the Turkish F-4 jet Phantom on Friday less than a mile from Syria’s coastal province of Latakia.

The foreign minister denied the aircraft was on a spy mission. He said the plane was on a routine test of Turkey’s own radar system.

“Our plane briefly violated Syrian airspace, but not during the time it was shot down,” Davutoglu said, according to the English-language Zaman newspaper website in Turkey. The foreign minister added that the plane was shot down about 15 minutes after having "momentarily" violated Syrian airspace, Turkish media reported.

The minister was seeking a meeting this week of Turkey’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to discuss possible options, the Turkish media reported.

Syrian officials made no effort to contact the doomed aircraft or Turkish authorities, the foreign minister said, although radio communications indicate that Syrian authorities were aware the plane was Turkish, Zaman reported.

 Syria has said its forces did not know the “unidentified aerial target” flying low and fast was a Turkish aircraft when it was shot down about midday Friday, apparently with a surface-to-air missile, plunging into the eastern Mediterranean about six miles from the Syrian coast. Syria has denied a “hostile act” against its neighbor.

What Turkey’s next step would be remains unclear. The foreign minister said Ankara would present its finding formally to the NATO military alliance this week.

Officials from both nations have exercised restraint and avoided belligerent rhetoric since the shoot-down occurred. Analysts have voiced fears of an armed confrontation between two regional powers that could convulse the already volatile region.

The Turkish foreign minister’s statements Sunday remained relatively restrained, though he did assail Syria’s description of the plane as a potential threat to its sovereignty.

A joint Turkish-Syrian search scoured the eastern Mediterranean on Saturday seeking the two pilots, who have now been missing more than 48 hours. Hopes for their survival were fading Sunday.

Turkish television said wreckage from the aircraft had been discovered 1,000 meters below the surface.

The incident has severely tested already-strained relations between the two neighboring nations.

Turkey has tacitly supported the more than yearlong rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkey has hosted a major rebel front, the Free Syrian Army, and an opposition political group, the Syrian National Council.

Each nation has already expelled the other country’s diplomats, and Turkey has imposed economic sanctions on Syria.

Syria has accused Turkey of allowing arms and rebel fighters to enter Syria from its territory. Turkey has denied providing weapons to the rebels or facilitating arms transfers to the insurgents.

More than 30,000 Syrians escaping the fighting in Syria have fled across the border to Turkey, where most are living in refugee camps. The almost 16-month rebellion in Syria has left at least 10,000 dead in what many fear could spiral into a sectarian civil war in the heart of the Middle East.

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-- Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, center, walks with advisors before an interview with the state-run TRT Television in Ankara. Credit: Hakan Goktepe / Turkish Foreign Ministry

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