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Syria warns NATO over Turkish plane

Syria warns Turkey and its NATO allies against any retaliatory measures over shooting down plane

President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

ANKARA - Syria described its shooting down of a Turkish warplane as an act of self-defence and warned Turkey and its NATO allies against any retaliatory measures.

In shell-shattered districts of Homs, heart of a 16-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, rebels battled troops as aide workers tried to evacuate civilians. Turkish television reported the desertion of a Syrian general and other officers across the border.

Syria's account of Friday's shooting down, though tempered with commitment to a "neighbourly relationship", seemed likely to further anger Ankara, which has summoned a NATO meeting on Tuesday over what it calls an unprovoked attack in international air space.

"NATO is supposed to be there to strengthen countries," Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a Damascus news conference. "If their meeting is for hostile reasons (they should know that) Syrian land and waters are sacred."

Turkey say the wreckage of the aircraft, shot down close to the Mediterranean maritime borders of both states, is lying in deep water. Makdissi said some flotsam had been found and turned over to Turkey. There was no word on the two airmen.

"The plane disappeared and then reappeared in Syrian airspace, flying at 100 metres altitude and about 1-2kms from the Syrian coast," he said. "We had to react immediately, even if the plane was Syrian we would have shot it down."

"The Syrian response was an act of defence of our sovereignty carried out by anti-aircraft machinegun which has a maximum range of 2.5 km."

In Ankara, Turkish air force chiefs briefed both President Abdullah Gul, the commander of the armed forces, and the cabinet on what Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said would be a "decisive" response. Turkey also said it would take the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

EU CONDEMNATION

Though not known for his emotional restraint, Erdogan has eschewed bellicose rhetoric over the incident, aware perhaps of Western reluctance to commit to any military action and wary himself of anything that could trigger a regional sectarian war.

According to Ankara's account, the aircraft entered Syrian airspace briefly and by mistake while on a mission to test Turkish air defences.

Some analysts have suggested it might in fact have been testing the responsiveness of Russian-supplied Syrian radar that would be a major obstacle to any foreign intervention, including supply of Syrian rebels or reconnaissance support.

"I'm not of the opinion that Turkey will immediately respond militarily," agreed Beril Dedeoglu of Galatasaray University. "But if there is another action, then there will certainly be a military response, there is no doubt."

Erdogan turned against former ally Assad after he refused his advice to bow to demands for reform. He now allows the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) to use Turkish territory as a safe haven, though Ankara denies supplying arms.

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