DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syria insisted Monday that a Turkish warplane shot down by its forces violated its airspace, but Ankara hit back saying it was a “hostile act of the highest order” ahead of NATO emergency talks.
The incident has reignited concern over the Syria conflict, with the EU condemning the Damascus regime and imposing new sanctions while also warning against military escalation.
Turkey charged that Syria “intentionally” shot down the F-4 Phantom, and Vice Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told the Turkish Cabinet Monday “a heat-seeking guided missile” struck the jet. Arinc also warned that Turkey could cut electric power supplies to energy-poor Syria in retaliation.
As tensions simmered, a Syrian general was among a new group of officers and soldiers to defect and join the growing rebel ranks in Turkey, media reports said.
On the ground, 53 people, most of them civilians, were reportedly killed nationwide, amid opposition claims the regime was preparing for a new “massacre” in the besieged city of Homs.
The Red Cross said booby traps and the lack of a clear agreement from troops and rebels were blocking its efforts to evacuate the sick and wounded from Homs.
NATO member states are to hold a emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss Friday’s downing of the Turkish jet, as Ankara and Damascus traded blame for what happened. Turkey says the jet was fired at over international waters, not inside Syrian airspace as Damascus maintains, and is urging ministers to honor the collective defense rights of a fellow NATO member.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdessi said the plane had violated Syrian airspace.
“The Turkish warplane violated Syrian airspace, and in turn Syrian air defenses fired back and the plane crashed inside Syrian territorial waters.
“What happened is a gross violation of Syrian sovereignty. If the goal of the [NATO] meeting is to calm the situation and promote stability, we wish it success,” Makdessi said. “But if the goal of the meeting is aggression, we say that Syrian airspace, territory and waters are sacred for the Syrian army, just as Turkish airspace, territory and waters are sacred for the Turkish army.”
Turkey has called Tuesday’s emergency NATO meeting, invoking Article Four of the alliance’s founding treaty which covers threats to members’ security.
“The facts in our possession show that our plane was hit by a heat-seeking guided laser missile,” Arinc said, adding that the jet was “intentionally shot down ... in international airspace. “To target an aircraft in this fashion without any warning is a hostile act of the highest order,” he said, adding that Ankara could soon announce a cut in much-needed power supplies to Syria.
The jet had been on an unarmed training mission, and both crewmembers are still missing.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg sought to up the pressure on Syria, imposing new sanctions targeting government ministries and companies, including a bank and a television channel. But on the eve of the NATO meeting, many also cautioned against military intervention.
In a joint statement condemning the incident, the ministers praised Turkey’s “measured and responsible initial reaction,” and said the matter needed to be investigated “thoroughly and urgently.”
It was “important that all forces understand that de-escalation is now decisive,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
The U.S. said Monday it would work with NATO ally Turkey to hold Syria accountable for what U.S. officials believe was a deliberate act of shooting aggression. White House spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions about what an appropriate response might be to the incident, but officials at a U.S. Defense Department briefing said they believed the downing was deliberate.
A Turkish diplomat said that one Syrian general, two colonels and five other army officers including two majors, accompanied by 24 family members, crossed into Turkey late Sunday. The latest defections bring the number of generals seeking refuge in the country to 13 since the revolt against the government of President Bashar Assad erupted in mid-March 2011.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Monday that at least 53 people – most of them civilians, as well as 15 army troops – were killed across Syria as the army pounded rebel strongholds and other towns and cities.
Troops pounded the central city of Homs, amid rebel Free Syrian Army warnings of an impending “massacre,” and the opposition Syrian National Council urging international help “before it is too late.”