Turkey takes jet downing to NATO, Syria tension soars
NATO said on Sunday it will discuss Turkey's accusation that Syria shot down one of its warplanes in international airspace, as Damascus suffered heavy losses and violence scaled new heights.
Syria's surging bloodshed saw at least 63 people killed on Sunday, nearly half of them troops who died in clashes with rebels, activists said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned Ankara's southern neighbour not to challenge Turkey's military, as Britain, another member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, offered support for "robust" international action.
"According to our conclusions, our plane was shot down in international airspace, 13 nautical miles from Syria," Davutoglu told Turkey's TRT television.
"The Syrians knew full well that it was a Turkish military plane and the nature of its mission," he said. "Nobody should dare put Turkey's (military) capabilities to the test."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "The (President Bashar al-) Assad regime should not make the mistake of believing that it can act with impunity. It will be held to account for its behaviour."
NATO said it will meet on Tuesday to discuss the issue following a request by Turkey.
"Under Article 4, any ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened," a NATO spokeswoman said.
Damascus said it downed the F-4 Phantom on Friday after it violated Syrian airspace.
Turkey had on Saturday acknowledged the plane may have done so, in comments seen as a bid to cool tensions between the former allies, but it now appears to have taken a harder stance.
"Syria was merely exercising its right and sovereign duty and defence," Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi was quoted as saying on Sunday in Al-Watan, a pro-government daily.
"There is no enmity between Syria and Turkey, but political tension (exists) between the two countries.
"What happened was an accident and not an assault as some like to say, because the plane was shot while it was in Syrian airspace and flew over Syrian territorial waters," Makdissi said.
CNN-Turk television reported that search and rescue teams have located the wreckage of the jet at a depth of 1,300 metres (yards) in the sea, but did not give its precise location or refer to the fate of the two missing pilots.
Ankara said it could not confirm the report.
Turkey-Syria relations have already been strained by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's outspoken condemnation of the Assad's regime's bloody crackdown, which rights activists say has killed more than 15,000 people since March 2011.
At least 63 people were killed on Sunday in Syria, nearly half of them regime troops who died in clashes with rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
At least 16 soldiers were killed in the northern province of Aleppo, while the rest died in neighbouring Idlib province and in the provinces of Damascus and Deir Ezzor in the east, the watchdog said.
"The clashes happened almost simultaneously at dawn," in Aleppo, which borders Turkey, the Observatory's head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
The fighting took place in the town of Dara Aza and at military checkpoints near the town of Al-Atarib and the village of Kafr Halab, the Britain-based watchdog said.
The Observatory reported that following an attack on an artillery battalion also in Aleppo, a number of soldiers defected, taking with them a large quantity of weapons.
In another setback for the regime, rebels captured 11 government soldiers in the central province of Damascus, it added.
"This is one of the bloodiest weeks in the conflict," Abdel Rahman said.
The Observatory also reported that rebels had shot down a Syrian regime helicopter near the Jordanian border.
According to Observatory figures, 94 people were killed in Syria last Monday, 62 on Tuesday, 88 on Wednesday, 168 on Thursday, 116 on Friday and 116 more on Saturday.
"It's like we are in a war," Abdel Rahman said. "Sometimes when two countries are at war, not even 20 people are killed a day. But now in Syria it has become normal to have 100 killed each day."
A Russian ship that tried to deliver attack helicopters to Syria entered the northern port of Murmansk on Sunday after being forced to turn back when news of its mission was leaked.
An unnamed Russian diplomatic source said the ship, the Alaed, would soon try again to make the highly controversial delivery under the Russian flag.
The switch appears to be an attempt to avoid security inspections that come when sailing under the flag of a third country.
The Alaed was forced to turn back after its mission was initially mentioned by the US State Department and then reported in the British press. Those reports prompted the ship's British insurer to withdraw coverage.