GAZIANTEP, Turkey -- Turkish fighter jets shot down a Syrian warplane Sunday in an embattled border zone, and Turkey and Syria each insisted the plane was in their airspace when it was downed.
The downing was the latest border clash between onetime allies who have turned on one another because of Syria's 3-year-old civil war. Turkey has sided with the opposition in that conflict, angering the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Turkey blamed Syria for what it said was an aerial encroachment Sunday, while Syrian state television said a military official called Turkey’s action “blatant aggression.” A monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said initial reports indicated the plane came down on the Syrian side of the frontier.
The incident came as Syrian government forces fought to regain control of a rebel-seized border crossing on its frontier with Turkey near the town of Kassab.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was campaigning in the northwestern town of Kocaeli a week before his party faces municipal elections, confirmed that Turkish F-16s had shot down the Syrian plane, and warned against further incursions.
“If you violate our airspace, then our response will be strong,” the prime minister, who has been battered by a corruption scandal and ridiculed for authorities’ attempt to shut down Twitter in Turkey, told the crowd at a rally. “You need to suffer the consequences.”
After Syrian forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet in June 2012, Turkey changed its military rules of engagement and declared that any Syrian element approaching the border would be treated as a threat. In September, Turkish jets shot down a Syrian transport helicopter that entered Turkish airspace.
Turkey has also taken a harder line since twin car bombings last May in the Mediterranean town of Reyhanli, near the Syrian border. Turkey blamed the Syrian regime for the blasts, which killed 53 people.
Amid the fighting between rebel and government forces inside Syria, cross-border incidents regularly flare. Turkish soldiers return fire from across the frontier. In late January, Turkish forces destroyed a rebel convoy near the town of Azaz following an attack on a Turkish border post.
Turkey’s Dogan news agency said the warplane downed Sunday was flying in a buffer zone between Syria’s Latakia province and the coastal Samandag district in Turkey’s Hatay province, which has a large population of Alawites, Assad’s sect.
Turkey’s policy on Syria is deeply unpopular in Hatay, and many there questioned the prime minister’s motives. Shows of military muscle tend to play well with Turkish voters.
“Erdogan shot the plane down to shift people’s attention from his corruption before elections,” said Enver Pasali, an Alawite from Antakya, the provincial seat of government. “And to please his friends in Qatar and Saudi Arabia” – other regional governments supporting the insurgents.
Special correspondents Johnson and Bulos reported from Gaziantep and Beirut, respectively. Times staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.