Dozens of Syrian soldiers defected overnight to Turkey, crossing the border with their families as tensions between the two countries soared three days after Syrian forces shot down a Turkish military plane.
The state-run Anadolu news agency said 33 soldiers defected, including a general and two colonels, but a Turkish government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules, said the group included three colonels and there was no general.
The two accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
Thousands of soldiers have abandoned the Syrian regime, but most are low-level conscripts. The rebel Free Syrian Army — which is based in Turkey — is made up largely of defectors.
Anadolu said a total of 224 people crossed into Turkey overnight, the latest blow to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March last year, and the death toll mounts every day.
There are widespread fears that the conflict could spark regional unrest — and those fears mounted on Friday when Syrian forces shot down a Turkish military plane.
Syria insists that the Turkish plane violated its air space, but Turkey disagrees, saying that though the plane had unintentionally strayed into Syria’s air space, it was inside international airspace when it was brought down.
In recent days, both sides appeared to be trying to calm tensions over the incident.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday his country has “no hostility” toward Turkey.
“We behaved in a defensive and sovereign way,” Jihad Makdissi said in the Syrian capital.
He said the search was still underway for two missing Turkish airmen who were on the plane.
Ankara has called a meeting of NATO’s governing body today to discuss the incident. Allies can request such consultations if they feel their territorial integrity or security are threatened.
Meanwhile, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz suggested Turkey would cut electricity supplies to Syria. Turkish companies provide Syria with about 10 percent of Syria’s annual power consumption. Yildiz said a decision on the issue could be announced today.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to address legislators in parliament today and reveal what measures Turkey will take against Damascus for downing down the plane.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) renewed efforts yesterday to enter the Syrian town of Homs to evacuate civilians and wounded trapped by fighting, but said it needed “unambiguous” agreement from both sides to make that happen.
Aid workers have been seeking access to the flashpoint city since government forces and the opposition agreed to a humanitarian pause in the fighting last week, but the ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent team was forced to turn back on Thursday after hearing shooting as they entered the old city.
“We have now made a second demarche, in fact today, so that we can go back to relevant places in Homs, together with the Syrian Red Crescent,” ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger said.
“The agreement of the parties to a conflict is necessary to do the job. There are also real security concerns, booby traps and other things,” he told a news conference in Geneva.
The ICRC says hundreds of civilians in the old city of Homs are trapped by fighting and wounded urgently need medical care.