By Desmond Butler
and Albert Aji
ISTANBUL: Turkish fighter jets shot down a Syrian warplane Sunday after it violated the country’s airspace, Turkey’s prime minister said, in a move likely to ramp up tensions between two countries already deeply at odds over Syria’s civil war.
A spokesman for Syria’s military confirmed the incident, denouncing it as a “blatant aggression.” The unnamed spokesman quoted on Syrian state TV said the plane was hit while pursuing gunmen near the border, and that the pilot safely ejected from the aircraft.
Syria’s official SANA news agency quoted the pilot as saying that he was shot down while 5 miles inside Syrian airspace.
Turkey, a NATO member that once enjoyed good ties with Syria, has emerged as one of the strongest critics of Syrian President Bashar Assad and is now one of the main backers of the 3-year-old rebellion against him.
Hostilities have flared along the border on several occasions, although the exchanges of fire have generally been brief and very limited in scope.
Despite protestations from Syria, there was little indication either side wanted the confrontation to escalate.
In a news release, the Turkish military said a Syrian MiG-23 entered Turkey’s airspace near the Hatay border zone after ignoring four warnings to turn back.
One of two Turkish F-16s conducting a patrol in the area then fired a missile that struck the Syrian jet, which crashed just inside Syrian territory near the town of Kassab, the military said.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at a rally in northwestern Turkey a week ahead of local elections, congratulated the military, and said the strike should serve as a warning against further incursions.
“If you violate our border, our slap will be hard,” he said.
The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has a network of reporters around Syria, reported that the pilot of the downed warplane landed in the village of Bahluliya in Latakia province. It gave no further details.
Syrian rebels launched an offensive in the Kassab area of Latakia near the Turkish border on Friday.
The rugged hills near the frontier have been engulfed in heavy fighting since then.
On Sunday, activists and state media reported clashes near the town, and said both sides were dispatching reinforcements.
Syrian officials said the opposition fighters were coming from inside Turkey.