A TURKISH fighter jet crashed into the waters off Syria yesterday, leading to fears of a confrontation between NATO and the Assad regime amid allegations that it was shot down.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, summoned his military and intelligence chief last night after the air force lost radio and radar contact with one of its F-4 Phantom fighters during a mission off the Syrian coast.
Officials in Turkey and Syria would not be drawn publicly on the aircraft's fate. But residents in the Syrian city of Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast, claimed to have witnessed an unidentified plane being shot down at roughly the same time that the fighter vanished from radar screens.
Two Lebanese television stations with close links to the government of President Assad also quoted sources in Damascus as saying that it had been shot down by Syrian air defences.
They claimed that the aircraft had entered Syrian air space, although Turkish military officials suggested it was over international waters.
In what would amount to an admission of guilt by the Assad regime, Turkish newspapers claimed that Mr Erdogan had received an apology from Syria.
"Syria immediately offered a very serious apology for the incident and admitted it was a mistake," the 'Habeturk' newspaper quoted the prime minister as telling reporters on board a plane taking him back to Turkey from Brazil.
However, after he landed last night, Mr Erdogan appeared to backtrack, saying he could not clarify the exact circumstances in which the plane came down and that he had "no firm information" on a Syrian apology.
Any indication that it was brought down by Syrian fire could have major international repercussions. Turkey could call on NATO to support and perhaps even participate in any response it chooses to make.
Turkish officials were quoted as saying that both pilots were rescued from the Mediterranean after they had safely ditched from the aircraft. (Daily Telegraph, London)