Turkey's military has found bodies of both pilots of an F-4 Phantom fighter-jet shot down over the Mediterranean Sea by Syrian security forces last month, media reports citing unnamed military officials said Wednesday.
Turkish military officials were quoted as saying that the bodies were found on the eastern Mediterranean seabed with the help of a US deep-sea exploration vessel. Without disclosing where exactly the bodies were found, they added that the wreckage of the downed jet is yet to be spotted.
The developments come after Syrian forces shot down the Turkish military reconnaissance jet over the Mediterranean on June 22. Although Ankara insists that the incident took place in international air space, the Syrian government claims that the targeted aircraft had violated its air space.
In an interview with the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet published on Tuesday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad expressed regret over the Turkish jet downing incident. Assad also voiced his condolences to the families of the two pilots of the downed Turkish jet.
Assad said the Syrian anti-aircraft defenses mistakenly fired at the plane, which "was flying in an air corridor used three times in the past by the Israeli air force." He insisted that Syria learned that the jet belonged to Turkey only after shooting it down.
Reiterating Syria's earlier stand that the Turkish jet was brought down inside Syrian airspace, Assad said his government "would not have hesitated to apologize if this plane had been shot down in international airspace."
Assad added that his government will not allow the controversial incident "to turn into open combat between the two countries." His remarks came amidst concerns that Turkey might use the incident as an excuse to launch a war against Syria with the aim of toppling the Syrian regime.
Nevertheless, Turkey has been wary of military intervention in Syria, but has made it clear after the aircraft shooting incident that it is alert to face the "clear and present threat" posed by its southern neighbor. At the weekend, Turkey had reinforced its areas bordering Syria with rocket-launchers and anti-aircraft guns.
Further, a meeting of NATO ministers was held last month on Turkey's request to discuss the incident. NATO ministers condemned the downing of the Turkish fighter jet, and described the incident "another example of the Syrian authorities' disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life."
But the NATO ministers agreed that the incident cannot be viewed as aggression against the western military alliance. Nevertheless, they made it clear that the alliance would continue to "stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity."
Turkey had earlier invoked Article 4 of NATO's charter, under which consultations can be requested when an ally feels its security is threatened, while requesting the NATO meeting. Incidentally, Turkey is a NATO member awaiting entry into the European Union.
Turkey and Syria shared close ties until recently, but relations between the former allies are currently at an all time low because of Turkey's strong criticism of Syrian regime's continued crackdown on protesters since the popular unrest against Assad's regime began in March 2011.
Turkey has been providing refuge to Syrian dissidents fleeing the brutal security crackdown at home. Nevertheless, Damascus alleges that Syrian army deserters are using Turkey as a base for launching attacks on Syrian military installations.
The UN estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising broke out 15 months ago. The Opposition claims that the actual death toll is much higher. The Assad government continues to blame "armed terrorist gangs" backed by Islamists and foreign mercenaries for the violence.
by RTT Staff Writer
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