Tension high after Syria downs military fighter jet

Posted at 2:07 PM, Jun 24, 2012
and last updated 2012-06-24 14:08:44-04

ISTANBUL (CNN) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday condemned a Syrian shoot-down of a Turkish aircraft as a “brazen and unacceptable act” and condemned it “in the strongest possible terms.”

Turkey officially considers the shooting down of one of its military fighter jets by Syria to be a hostile act, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said Sunday.

Turkey delivered the message in a diplomatic note to the Syrian consulate in Istanbul, calling the incident “a hostile movement,” ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal told CNN.

Turkish search-and-rescue teams found the wreckage of the fighter jet in the Mediterranean Sea on Sunday, about 1,300 meters (4,260 feet) underwater, he said.

They have not reached the wreck yet, he added. There was no word about survivors of the two-man crew.

The incident raises the temperature between the two regional powers significantly.

Syria gave no warning before shooting down the F-4 Phantom jet which strayed into its territory, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Sunday in an appearance filled with tough talk against Syria.

He accused Syria of spreading "disinformation" about the incident.

"They have created the impression that Syria felt like it was an act of aggression and they shot it down. ... from our perspective that's not the case," Davutoglu told reporters.

The plane in the Friday incident was unarmed, not sending hostile signals, and identifiable as Turkish, he said.

"You have to first send a caution, a warning," he said in the first detailed Turkish statement on the international incident. "If the warning doesn't work, you scramble your planes, you send a stronger signal, you force the plane to land. There wasn't enough time to do any of that in the time that our plane was in Syrian airspace."

"We have to question how it is that an unarmed, solo flight got this response from the Syrians," he said.

He said the fighter jet was in international airspace when it was fired upon.

It had strayed into Syrian territory in a "short, unintentional violation," but was notified by the Turkish side that it had crossed the line, and returned to international airspace, Davutoglu said.

Turkey will respond "decisively," but within international law, the foreign minister vowed, saying: "It's a fine line."

Turkey took its case to NATO, a spokeswoman for the alliance confirmed. Turkey, a key member of the group, is expected to make a presentation on the incident in Brussels Tuesday.

It called for the meeting under NATO's Article 4, which deals with what happens when the "territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened."

British Foreign Minister William Hague Sunday called the incident "outrageous" and said he condemned it wholeheatedly."

"The Assad regime should not make the mistake of believing that it can act with impunity. It will be held to account for its behavior," Hague said of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

The plane was participating in a test of Turkey's national radar system, Davutoglu said.

Turkish boats and helicopters had been searching for the two-man crew inside Syrian waters, he said. He said the search-and-rescue mission was not a joint operation with Syria, but was being coordinated with Damascus because it is in their territory.

Davutoglu has spoken with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the foreign ministers of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and Iran, and the European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton since the incident, spokesman Selcuk Unal told CNN Saturday.

The Syrian military shot down the plane Friday as it flew just off the Mediterranean coast, Syria said. A Syrian military spokesman said anti-aircraft artillery shot down what was an unidentified aircraft that entered its airspace at a very low altitude and high speed.

While on fire, the jet fell into the sea 10 kilometers, or more than six miles, from the shore of the town of Um Al-Tuyoor, the spokesman said.

On Saturday, Syrian state news agency SANA quoted a military spokesman as saying "the target turned out to be a Turkish military plane that entered Syrian airspace and was dealt with according to laws observed in such cases."

The U.N.'s Ban expressed his "deep concern" about the situation and the potential implications for the region during a phone call with Davutoglu on Saturday, the United Nations said.

He commended Turkey for the "restraint" it has shown.

The Turkish government called an emergency meeting after the warplane went missing near the border.

The Turkish military said the plane took off from Malatya Erhac Center and lost radar communication over the sea near Hatay province, which borders Syria.

The jet's disappearance could spark an international crisis. Relations between the two neighbors have already deteriorated amid the bloody uprising against President al-Assad's regime.

Erdogan has repeatedly called on al-Assad to step down, and Turkey has withdrawn its diplomats from Damascus.

Davutoglu pointedly refused to express support for al-Assad on Sunday, saying Turkey stands with "the Syrian people."

"This tension is not between Turkey and the Syrian people. There is a regime in Syria which oppresses its people," he said.

However, Turkish President Abdullah Gul suggested the two countries were still liaising despite their differences.

"We pulled out representatives from Syria because it was not safe. This does not mean we are not in contact with them (the Syrians)," he said Saturday, according to the Anatolia news agency.

More than 30,000 Syrian refugees have spilled onto Turkish soil, and Turkey is hosting a number of Syrian opposition groups.

CNN's Ivan Watson contributed to this report.

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