June 24 (Reuters): Turkey accused Syria today of shooting down a military plane in international airspace without warning and called a Nato meeting to discuss a response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Amid growing acrimony between the once-friendly neighbours, Syria said its forces had shot dead “terrorists” infiltrating its territory from Turkey, which along with western and Arab nations has backed the cause of Syrians fighting Assad.
Nato envoys will meet on Tuesday at Turkey’s request under Article 4 of the military alliance’s founding treaty, which provides for states to “consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened”.
It stops short of the explicit mention of possible armed responses cited in Article 5.
Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the search for two missing pilots was still under way, in co-ordination with the Syrian authorities. He denied it was a “joint” operation.
He told state broadcaster TRT the plane had been clearly marked as Turkish and dismissed Syria’s assertion it had not identified the aircraft before opening fire.
Davutoglu said he also planned to set out Turkey’s case before the UN Security Council where western powers are seeking, in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition, to push through a motion that could allow stronger measures against Assad. Moscow fears this could lead to military action that could undermine its interests in Syria.
What began as demonstrations against Assad developed last year into armed rebellion, tipping the country towards a sectarian civil war, with thousands already killed across Syria.
Davutoglu said the jet was unarmed and had been on a solo mission to test domestic radar systems, but acknowledged it had briefly crossed Syrian airspace 15 minutes before it was attacked. There was no “secret” element to its mission.
“Our plane was shot at a distance of 13 sea miles from Syria’s border in international airspace,” Davutoglu said.
“According to the radar images, our plane lost contact with headquarters after it was hit and because the pilot lost control, it crashed into Syrian waters after making abnormal movements,” he said. “Throughout this entire period no warning was made to our plane.”
Some analysts said the aircraft, in violating Syrian airspace at a time of great sensitivity, could in fact have been testing Syria's Russian-made radar and air defences, which might prove a major factor in any possible Western armed action.
The foreign ministry said Turkey knew the co-ordinates of the wreckage, 1,300 metres underwater, but had not found it yet.
Syria, formally at war with Israel and the target of Israeli air raids in the past, has said the plane was flying fast and low, just one kilometre off its coast when it was shot down.
Turkey shelters the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA) and hosts 32,000 Syrian refugees on its southeastern border with Syria, some 50km from where the Turkish aircraft was shot down. But it denies providing arms for the insurgents.