ISTANBUL/BEIRUT: Turkey shot down a Syrian plane Sunday that Ankara said had crossed into its airspace from Latakia province, where rebels killed a cousin of President Bashar Assad during fierce clashes for a border town.
“A Syrian plane violated our airspace,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told an election rally in northwest 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 rebel fighters inside Syria.
Syria’s official SANA news agency quoted the pilot, who ejected from the plane, as saying that he was shot down while 7 kilometers inside Syrian airspace.
The Turkish general staff said one of its control centers detected two Syrian MIG-23s around 1 p.m. and warned them four times after they came close to the Turkish border.
One plane entered Turkish airspace at Yayladagi, east of the Kasab border crossing, it said. A Turkish F-16 fired a rocket at the Syrian jet and it crashed around 1,200 meters inside Syrian territory.
Amateur video released by rebel fighters showed smoke rising from wooded hills in the border area where they said the plane had come down.
The rebels have been fighting since Friday for control of the Kasab crossing, one of several counteroffensives since they retreated this week from a Crusader castle near the Lebanese frontier and a town on a vital cross-border supply route.
Assad’s soldiers, backed by Iran and Shiite forces from Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have been pushing rebels back in the center of the country around Damascus and Homs, but have only a minimal presence in most of north and eastern Syria.
The incident occurred six months after Turkish warplanes shot down a Syrian helicopter that crossed into Turkish airspace in the same area.
Authorities in Damascus say this week’s Islamist rebel offensive around the Kasab border crossing marked a new escalation, accusing Turkey of firing tank and artillery shells into Syria to provide cover for the fighters.
A source at Syria’s Foreign Ministry called Turkey’s actions “unprecedented and unjustified,” SANA said.
Assad’s forces have already lost control of most border crossings with Turkey during the three-year civil war but had held on to Kasab, gateway to the coastal province of Latakia that has remained an Assad stronghold.
State television said that Hilal Assad, a cousin of the president and local leader of the National Defense Force militia, which has been supporting the army’s efforts to crush the rebellion, was killed in the Kasab-area fighting.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said heavy clashes continued for a third day around Kasab, where rebels have seized control of the crossing but Assad’s forces, who still control the nearby town, have been fighting back, supported by airstrikes.
The British-based Observatory said regime troops set fire to several wooded areas surrounding Kasab, a majority-Armenian town, in a bid to eliminate the rebels’ hiding places.
The Observatory reported clashes between troops and rebels led by fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front near Kasab and a strategic hill known as Observatory 45. It added that some of the shells fired by Syrian troops fell on the Turkish side of the border.
Local activists said the regime troops now occupied only “10 percent” of Kasab, after being beaten back by rebels.
The battles in Latakia are part of the Anfal campaign announced Friday by the Nusra Front and the Islamist militias Ahrar al-Sham and Ansar al-Sham.
A Latakia anti-regime activist group posted a video purporting to show members of the Ansar al-Sham meeting with residents in Kasab to inform them that they would not be harmed during the hostilities.
“If you want to leave, leave, and if you want to stay, we will protect you,” one militant tells the residents.
The Observatory added that rebels also launched another attack in Latakia in the village of Solas, about 25 kilometers south of Kasab.
They also fired three rockets into the city of Latakia, the main hub for the operation to ship out materials from Syria’s chemical weapons program for destruction. The Observatory said a civilian and policemen were killed in the strike, which also wounded a number of people.
In Aleppo, rebels said they had captured a former police station on the edge of the city’s ancient citadel, as well as installations in the Lairamoun district and a nearby hill overlooking the main road into Aleppo from the northwest.
Rebels also claimed advances in next-door Idlib province, around the town of Khan Sheikhoun.