Syria: Regrets but no apology over Turkish jet incident from Bashar al-Assad
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has said he regrets the shooting down of a Turkish jet by his forces, and that he will not allow tensions with his neighbour to deteriorate into an “armed conflict”.
The RF-4E reconnaissance aircraft was downed on 22 June. Syria said it hit the jet after it flew low inside its airspace, while Turkey said it was hit in international airspace after briefly strayinginto Syria.
In an interview with the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet yesterday, Mr Assad offered no apology, insisting his forces acted in self-defence. He said the plane was flying in Syrian airspace in a corridor used by Israeli planes in 2007, when they bombed a building under construction in northern Syria. The UN nuclear agency said the building was a nearly finished reactor meant to produce plutonium, which could arm nuclear warheads.
“The plane was using the same corridor used by Israeli planes three times in the past,” Mr Assad said “Soldiers shot it down because we did not see it on our radars and we were not informed about it.”
He said: “I say 100 per cent, I wish we did not shoot it down.”
However, Istanbul yesterday confirmed it had again scrambled F-16 fighters after Syrian helicopters flew near its border.
Turkey’s military command said the jets took off on Monday when Syrian transport helicopters were spotted flying near the frontier, without entering Turkish air space. It was the third day in a row that Turkey had scrambled its F-16s.
A Syrian general and 84 soldiers were the latest to flee to Turkey on Monday. But army and government defections have so far failed to shake Mr Assad’s 12-year grip on power.
Mr Assad said he was not bent on staying in office come what may, but gave no hint that he was ready to quit. “If my staying or going saved my people and country, why would I hold on? I wouldn’t even stay one day,” he said.
“If the opposite is true, that is, if the people don’t want me, then there are in any case elections. If the people wanted, they would send me away,” he was quoted as saying.
Neither Mr Assad nor his enemies have shown much interest in compromise as Syria slides deeper into a civil war, fuelling animosity between Sunni Muslims and the president’s minority Alawites, who control the military and security forces and are aligned to the Shiite sect, and the Shia-led Iran.
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