ANKARA/BEIRUT: Turkey says its air force jet that disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea Friday was shot down by Syria, in an action likely to worsen already strained relations between the neighboring countries.
A statement following a two-hour security meeting led by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the warplane that went missing near Syria had been downed by Syrian forces and that the two Turkish pilots remain missing.
It said Turkey “will determinedly take necessary steps” in response, without saying what they would be.
However, in his first public comments on the warplane’s loss earlier Friday, Erdogan adopted a measured tone, telling reporters he could not say whether the plane had crashed or been shot down.
He said he had no word on the fate of the two airmen.
The Turkish military earlier said one of its planes was missing. Erdogan said Turkish ships and helicopters were searching for the airmen in cooperation with Syrian vessels.
Erdogan said he had no firm information on a reported Syrian apology and promised a further statement after a security meeting with his interior and foreign ministers and the chief of general staff later in the evening.
Turkey has joined nations such as the U.S. in saying that Syrian President Bashar Assad should step down because of the uprising in his country. Turkey also has set up refugee camps on its border for more than 32,000 Syrians who have fled the fighting.
Erdogan was earlier reported as saying Damascus had apologized over the downed plane.
“Syria immediately offered a very serious apology for the incident and admitted it was a mistake,” Haberturk daily quoted Erdogan as saying on a plane bound from Brazil to Turkey.
“At this moment the air force and navy are conducting search and rescue operations in the eastern Mediterranean, and luckily our pilots are alive; we have just lost a plane.” There was no explanation as to why Damascus should apologize for a crash, unless its forces had shot down the Turkish F-4 jet or harried it.
The news that Syrian air defenses downed the plane was first reported by Al-Mayadeen, a Lebanon-based television channel launched this month that hopes to counter the influence of Arabic-language satellite stations such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, both funded by Sunni Gulf Arab countries that have backed the revolt against Assad.
Lebanon’s Al-Manar television station also reported Syrian defense forces had shot down the plane.
“Syrian security sources confirmed to a Manar correspondent in Damascus that Syrian defense forces shot down the Turkish fighter jet,” the Hezbollah-owned channel said.
Turkey’s military said a search and rescue operation was under way. It lost radar and radio contact with the plane after it left Erhac airport in the eastern province of Malatya.
Two crew were aboard the F-4 jet, Turkish state news agency Anatolia said, citing Malatya Governor Ulvi Saran.
The incident came a day after a Syrian pilot defected, flying a Syrian fighter jet over the Jordanian border, where he was granted political asylum.
NATO-member Turkey, which had become closer to Syria before the uprising against Assad, turned against the Syrian leader when he responded violently to pro-democracy protests inspired by popular upheavals elsewhere in the Arab world.
Ankara has previously floated the possibility of setting up a safe haven or humanitarian corridor inside Syria, which would entail military intervention, but has said it would undertake no such action without U.N. Security Council approval.
Turkey Friday denied allegations it was shipping weapons to Syrian rebels across the border after the New York Times reported Thursday Turkey was among nations arming the rebel fighters.