Turkish armed forces on Sunday shot down a Syrian plane that Ankara said had crossed into its air space above an area where Syrian rebels have been battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for control of a border crossing.
“A Syrian plane violated our airspace,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told an election rally in Turkey. “Our F-16s took off and hit this plane. Why? Because if you violate my airspace, our slap after this will be hard.”
Damascus condemned what it called a “blatant aggression” and said the jet was pursuing rebels in Syria, adding that the pilot managed to eject before the plane crashed.
The General Staff of the Republic of Turkey said one of its control centers detected two Syrian MIG-23s at about 1pm and warned them four times after they came close to the Turkish border.
One plane then entered Turkish airspace in Yayladagi, east of the Kasab border crossing, it said. A Turkish F-16 fired a rocket at the Syrian jet and it crashed about 1,200m inside Syrian territory.
The rebels have been fighting since Friday for control of the crossing, one of several counteroffensives since they retreated this week from a crusader castle near the Lebanese frontier and town on a vital cross-border supply route.
Syrian state TV reported that Hilal al-Assad, a cousin of the Syrian president and local leader of the National Defense Force militia that has been supporting the army’s efforts to crush the rebellion, was killed near Kasab on Sunday.
Once an ally of Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan has become a fierce critic of Damascus’ response to the uprising and shelters Syrian rebels.
Authorities in Damascus say this week’s rebel offensive around the Kasab crossing marked a new escalation, accusing Ankara of firing tank and artillery shells into Syria to provide cover for the fighters.
On the same day that he warned about the consequences of violating Turkish airspace, Erdogan issued another threat, warning political enemies accusing him of corruption that they will be crushed by their own immorality.
He delivered the remarks at a rally in Istanbul that marked the climax of weeks of campaigning for local polls on Sunday that may decide his political fate and drew hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters, while tens of thousands more gathered outside the rally grounds, clambering over fences to get in.
The supporters called Erdogan’s name as they waved Turkish flags and the emblems of the Justice and Development Party he founded in 2001 and led to power a year later by vowing to root out the corruption that dogged his rivals.
As the vote nears, tapes of telephone conversations purporting to expose corruption around Erdogan have appeared on Web sites almost daily. Erdogan accuses US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers of manufacturing a police corruption probe that touched on his business associates, government members and his family.
In a speech on Saturday, Erdogan described the influential Hizmet network run by Gulen as a terrorist organization.
“Whatever threats, blackmail or slander you throw out, you will be crushed beneath the immorality of these montages,” the prime minister said. “The people can see the game that is being played.”
Turkey last week blocked Twitter — a vehicle for many of the audio tapes — drawing accusations of repression from Western governments and rights groups.
Erdogan responded to his critics at a smaller rally held earlier on Sunday, saying: “The usual media are attacking us. What do they call it? ‘Intolerance of freedoms.’ I don’t care who it is, I’m not listening. This entity called Twitter, this YouTube, this Facebook, they have shaken families to their roots ... I don’t understand how people of good sense could defend this Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There are all kinds of lies there.”
There is expectation of further postings intended to damage Erdogan, who denies all graft accusations. These could emerge ahead of the local polls, where any result much below the 40 percent achieved by his party five years ago could weaken his prospects of being elected president in July.
The size of the crowd at the Istanbul rally, which Erdogan put at 2 million, suggested the ruling party was well placed to keep control of Istanbul. The opposition Republican People’s Party would struggle to bring out anything like that number, but could claim a significant win in Ankara.
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