ISTANBUL — Turkish fighter jets shot down a Syrian warplane Sunday after it violated the country’s airspace, Turkey’s prime minister said, in a move likely to ramp up tensions between two countries already deeply at odds over Syria’s civil war.
A spokesman for Syria’s military confirmed the incident, denouncing it as a “blatant aggression.” The unnamed spokesman quoted on Syrian state TV said the plane was hit while pursuing gunmen near the border, and the pilot safely ejected from the aircraft.
Syria’s official SANA news agency quoted the pilot as saying that he was shot down while 5 miles inside Syrian airspace.
Turkey, a NATO member that once had good ties with Syria, has emerged as one of the strongest critics of Syrian President Bashar Assad and is now one of the main backers of the three-year-old rebellion against him. Hostilities have flared along the border on several occasions, although the exchanges of fire have been brief and limited in scope.
Despite protestations from Syria, neither side indicated a desire for the confrontation to escalate.
The Turkish military said a Syrian MiG-23 entered Turkey’s airspace near the Hatay border zone after ignoring four warnings to turn back. One of two Turkish F-16s conducting an area patrol then fired a missile that struck the Syrian jet, which crashed 1,200 yards inside Syrian territory near the town of Kassab, the military said.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at a rally in northwestern Turkey a week ahead of local elections, said the strike should serve as a warning against further incursions.
“If you violate our border, our slap will be hard,” he said.
The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has a network of reporters around Syria, reported that the pilot of the downed warplane landed in the village of Bahluliya in Latakia province. It gave no further details.
Syrian rebels launched an offensive in the Kassab area of Latakia near the Turkish border on Friday.
On Sunday, activists and state media reported clashes near the town, and said both sides were dispatching reinforcements. Syrian officials said the opposition fighters were coming from inside Turkey.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes between troops and rebels led by fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front near Kassab and that some shells fired by Syrian troops fell on the Turkish side.