7/03/2012

Syria-Turkey tension: Assad 'regrets' F-4 jet's downing

BBCNEWS

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is quoted as saying he regrets "100%" that a Turkish jet was shot down after entering Syrian airspace.

In an interview with Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper, he argues that the plane was flying in an area previously used by Israel's air force.
The plane went down in the Mediterranean last month and the two pilots have not been found.
The incident has heightened tensions between the two countries.
 

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Analysis

In saying that he "regrets the incident 100%", Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seeking to reduce tensions with Turkey and turn the page on an episode that risked bringing the two countries to the brink of war.
However, this falls well short of an apology. President Assad is still sticking to Syria's story that the plane was engaged in Syrian airspace, something the Turks dispute.
Mr Assad sought to deflect criticism by saying that the plane was flying at low level "in an air corridor used three times in the past by the Israeli air force". The soldier who shot it down, he said, had no radar and could not know to which country the plane belonged.
But did this really look like an Israeli attack? And surely somebody in Syria's comprehensive air defence network was monitoring the plane on radar.

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Last week, Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned Syria's action and described the neighbouring country as a "clear and present threat".
Turkey reinforced border areas with rocket-launchers and anti-aircraft guns.
On Sunday, Turkey said it had scrambled six F-16 fighter jets when Syrian helicopters had approached the border.
"We will not allow (the shooting down) to turn into open combat between the two countries," President Assad is quoted as saying.
Cumhuriyet, which is said to have conducted the interview in Damascus on Sunday, shows a picture of Mr Assad standing beside its Ankara bureau chief Utku Cakirozer.
In other developments,
  • Turkish media reported late on Monday that another 85 Syrian soldiers, including 14 senior officers, had defected across the Turkish border. It is one of the biggest groups of army defections since the March 2011 uprising in Syria began
  • Syria is practising a widespread policy of state-sanctioned torture, a Human Rights Watch report says. The group focuses on what it calls an "archipelago of torture centres"
  • UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has said that both Syrian government forces and the opposition have been involved in operations that harmed civilians. She has appealed for further militarisation of the conflict to be avoided at all costs
  • At least 78 people were killed in violence throughout Syria on Monday, opposition activists reported
  • Clashes were reported on Tuesday in Damascus and government forces were operating in the cities of Deraa and Deir Ezzor, the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC) activist group said
  • UN observers visited the Damascus suburb of Douma on Tuesday, which was recaptured by government forces days earlier
  • A picture released by activists purportedly showed the burial of more than a dozen people killed by Syrian forces in Douma

'Pilot's error'

In the Turkish interview, Mr Assad appears to try to cool the border dispute, saying that Syria had not and would not bolster its military presence, regardless of the actions of Mr Erdogan's government.
"We want to think of it as a pilot's error and we would consider this an isolated incident, which shouldn't be exaggerated," the Syrian leader is reported as saying.
Cumhuriyet says that during the conversation, which lasted two-and-a-half hours, Mr Assad explains that the plane's identity only became clear after it had been brought down.
"I say 100% 'if only we had not shot it down,'" he is quoted as saying.
The soldier who opened fire on the F-4 Phantom had no access to radar, he says, pointing out that the same route was used in the 2007 Israeli bombing of a site in northeastern Syria.
The UN's nuclear agency later said the site was very likely a nuclear reactor under construction.
Downed Turkish jet: the two accounts
Map of conflicting routes of Turkish jet downed by Syria
Syrian version Turkish version
  • 11:40 local time (08:40 GMT): F-4 spotted flying at altitude of 100m (330ft), 1-2km (0.5-1 nautical miles) from Syrian coast
  • Surprise meant no time to give warning
  • Air defences engaged aircraft about 1km (0.5 nautical miles) from coast; it crashed into sea 10km (5 nautical miles) west of village of Om al-Tuyour
  • Tail wreckage shows jet was hit by anti-aircraft gun, which has a maximum range of 2.5km (1.3 nautical miles)
  • Approx 10:28 local time (07:28 GMT): F-4 leaves Erhac airbase in Malatya province and flies south-west over Hatay province
  • 11:42: jet mistakenly enters Syrian airspace near Latakia at altitude of 61m (200ft) at speed of 300 knots
  • 11:47: leaves after Turkish radar operator warning - no Syrian warning
  • 11:56: jet hit 24 km (13 nautical miles) from Syrian coast at altitude of 7,400ft (2.2km) by heat-seeking or laser-guided missile.
  • 11:58: crashes into the sea