Syria on Saturday confirmed it had shot down a Turkish fighter jet that had entered their territory, as Turkey said it would take “necessary steps” once it had established all the facts.
A Syrian military spokesman told the country’s official news agency SANA that they had opened fire on an “unidentified target” that had entered its airspace, bringing it down in Syrian waters.
They had subsequently established that it had been a Turkish fighter and the two countries’ navies were now cooperating in an operation to find the two missing pilots, the agency reported.
This latest crisis will likely further test relations between the two neighbors, already strained over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outspoken condemnation of Syria’s bloody crackdown on anti-government protests.
“An unidentified aerial target violated Syrian airspace, coming from the west at a very low altitude and at high speed over territorial waters” in the eastern Mediterranean, a military spokesman told SANA.
Anti-aircraft batteries had opened fire, hitting the plane as it was one kilometer away from land and it had crashed about 10 kilometers (six miles) off the coast of Latakia province, in Syrian territorial waters, he added.
“We later confirmed that the target was a Turkish military plane,” the spokesman said, stressing that the target had been dealt with according to the laws governing such a situation.
A little earlier, Erdogan confirmed in a written statement that Syria had shot down a Turkish fighter jet reported missing over the eastern Mediterranean Friday.
The statement came after he had met military and intelligence chiefs and key ministers in an emergency meeting.
“Turkey will announce its final position and take necessary steps with determination after the incident is entirely clarified,” Erdogan added.
A spokesman for the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was following the situation closely.
“He hopes this serious incident can be handled with restraint by both sides through diplomatic channels,” said Martin Nesirky.
An earlier Turkish army statement said the jet had lost radio contact with its base over the eastern Mediterranean near Syria’s Latakia.
The military plane vanished off radar screens around 0900 GMT after it took off from an airbase in Malatya city in Turkey’s southeast.
Malatya governor Ulvi Saran told the Anatolia news agency that the aircraft was a F-4 fighter jet with two pilots onboard.
There was confusion earlier Friday after local media quoted Erdogan as saying that Syria had already apologized over the fighter jet crash and that a search was underway for the pilots.
Later Friday however, Erdogan appeared to back off from the comments attributed to him, saying an exact explanation would be issued later, after his emergency meeting with security and defense chiefs.
Erdogan’s government broke with Damascus regime after his former ally, President Bashar al-Assad, launched a deadly crackdown on popular revolts that erupted mid-March last year.
Syrian activists say the violence has cost more than 15,000 lives.
Turkey has now taken in more than 30,000 civilians who fled the violence in Syria, housing them in camps near the border, according to foreign ministry figures.
Earlier this month, it hosted a key meeting of Syrian opposition activists.
But this latest incident is the most serious yet between the two countries.
“If the incident is interpreted as an assault on Turkey, the debate over whether to invoke the Article 5 of NATO treaty could resurface,” professor Huseyin Bagci told private NTV television.
Bagci was referring to the clause which stipulates that an attack against a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is considered an attack against all members of the alliance.
Turkey has already considered invoking the NATO article after ricocheting bullets fired on the Syrian side of their common border killed two Syrians on Turkish soil in April.
Also Friday, Ankara denied allegations in a New York Times report that cited US officials and Arab intelligence sources to say that Turkey was among a number of countries shipping weapons to Syrian rebels across the border.