Turkey yesterday called for a NATO meeting after accusing Syria of shooting down one of its warplanes in international airspace, as Damascus suffered new setbacks and violence scaled new heights.
Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu also warned Ankara’s southern neighbor not to challenge Turkey’s military, as Britain, another NATO member, offered its support for “robust” international action.
“According to our conclusions, our plane was shot down in international airspace, 13 nautical miles [24km] from Syria,” Davutoglu told Turkey’s TRT television.
“The Syrians knew full well that it was a Turkish military plane and the nature of its mission,” he said. “Nobody should dare put Turkey’s [military] capabilities to the test.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “The [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad regime should not make the mistake of believing that it can act with impunity. It will be held to account for its behavior.”
“The UK stands ready to pursue robust action at the United Nations Security Council,” Hague said, also confirming support for the efforts of UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan.
Turkey, after concluding the jet was downed in international airspace, called for a NATO meeting, a diplomatic source said, confirming a TV news report. The source added that the meeting would be held tomorrow.
Damascus said it downed the F-4 Phantom on Friday after it violated Syrian airspace.
Turkey had on Saturday acknowledged the plane may have done so, in comments seen as a bid to cool tensions between the former allies, but it now appears to have taken a harder stance.
“Syria was merely exercising its right and sovereign duty and defense,” Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi was quoted as saying yesterday in al-Watan, a pro-government daily. “There is no enmity between Syria and Turkey, but political tension [exists] between the two countries.”
“What happened was an accident and not an assault as some like to say, because the plane was shot while it was in Syrian airspace and flew over Syrian territorial waters,” Makdissi said.
Turkey-Syria relations have already been strained by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outspoken condemnation of the al-Assad regime’s bloody crackdown, which rights activists say has killed more than 15,000 people since March last year.
At least 34 people were killed yesterday in Syria, including 18 troops who died in clashes with rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
“The clashes happened almost simultaneously at dawn,” in Aleppo Province, which borders Turkey, the observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The fighting took place in the town of Dara Aza, and at military checkpoints near the town of al-Atarib and the village of Kafr Halab, the Britain-based watchdog said.
It reported that following an attack on an artillery battalion also in Aleppo, a number of soldiers defected, taking with them a large quantity of weapons.
In another setback for the regime, rebels captured 11 government soldiers in Damascus Province, it said.
“This is one of the bloodiest weeks in the conflict,” Abdel Rahman said.
According to observatory figures, 94 people were killed in Syria on Monday, 62 on Tuesday, 88 on Wednesday, 168 on Thursday, 116 on Friday and 116 on Saturday.
“It’s like we are in a war,” Abdel Rahman said. “Sometimes when two countries are at war, not even 20 people are killed a day, but now in Syria, it has become normal to have 100 killed each day.”
The mounting death toll was a result of the international community’s inability to agree on a way to resolve the crisis, he said.