DAMASCUS: Syria accused Ankara of “flagrant aggression” yesterday after Turkish forces shot down a warplane near the border, raising tensions as Syrian loyalists and rebels battled for control of a frontier crossing.
Relations between the neighbouring states have collapsed during the Syrian conflict, with Ankara squarely backing rebels trying to topple President Bashar Al Assad.
It was the most serious incident since Turkish warplanes last September downed a Syrian helicopter that Ankara said was two kilometres inside its airspace.
A Syrian military source said Turkey shot down the warplane “in a flagrant act of aggression that is evidence of (Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip) Erdogan’s support for terrorist groups”.
The aircraft “was chasing terrorist groups inside Syrian territory at Kasab”, said the source, referring to the disputed border crossing. The pilot was able to eject.
Syrian troops and rebels have been locked in deadly fighting since Friday for control of Kasab border post in the northern province of Latakia, a regime stronghold.
The battle erupted after three jihadist groups, including
Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Al Nusra Front, announced the launch of an offensive on Tuesday in Latakia dubbed “Anfal”, or “spoils of war”.
In a move expected to further exacerbate tensions, Erdogan and Turkish President Abdullah Gul praised Turkey’s military for downing the warplane.
Erdogan also warned Syria against any response.
“Our response will be heavy if you violate our airspace,” he warned Damascus.
The Turkish military said two Syrian MIG-23 planes approaching its airspace were warned “four times” to turn away and that it scrambled fighter jets when one refused to do so and violated Turkish airspace.
A statement said an F-16 jet fired a missile at the Syrian plane in line with “rules of engagement” adopted after a Turkish warplane was downed by the Syrian air force in June 2012, since when Ankara considers any military approach towards the border a threat.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the plane downed yesterday was bombing rebels fighting to seize Kasab when it was hit.
It said the rebels overran the crossing but were still battling loyalist forces in the area, while activists posted a video on YouTube showing jihadists from Ansar Al Sham flying a black flag over the post. A Syrian military source denied the fall of Kasab, as a security source said the rebels had infiltrated from Turkey. AFP