ANKARA (AFP) – Turkey said it had downed a Syrian military helicopter on Monday, accusing the neighboring nation of violating its airspace in the tense border region, amid a new international diplomatic push to end Syria’s civil war.
The Syrian MI-17 helicopter was detected 1.2. miles inside Turkish airspace and shot down five minutes later after failing to heed warnings, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting.
“It was continuously warned by our air defense but as the violation continued, it fell on Syrian soil at 2:25 pm, having been hit by missiles from our planes,” which took off from their base in the eastern province of Malatya, he said.
Arinc added that there was no information about the fate of its crew because the helicopter fell on Syrian soil.
The downing of the helicopter comes at a time of heightened diplomatic activity to resolve the Syrian crisis, which has spillover effects across the region.
Arinc also said that Turkey has changed its military rules of engagement in response to repeated gunfire from the Syrian side towards the border areas.
In a statement posted on its website, the Turkish military said the Syrian helicopter was detected when it was 26 nautical miles away from its airspace and was warned until it was five nautical miles away.
“Despite that, the Syrian helicopter kept on approaching the Turkish airspace,” the army said, adding that it violated the airspace in the vicinity of the Guvecci border post, while it was flying at an approximate altitude of 14,200 feet.
One of the two patrolling Turkish F-16 jets shot down the helicopter which fell almost one kilometre inside Syrian territory, according to the army.
Turkey has also notified — in writing — the United Nations and NATO, a Turkish official said.
“It is only natural to notify NATO of the incident because an armed action was involved,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey exercised its rights under international law and was determined to protect its borders.
“From now, nobody will dare to violate Turkey’s borders. All measures have been taken,” Davutoglu said in televised remarks during a visit to Paris where he attended a meeting about Syria with his counterparts from the United States, France, Britain and Saudi Arabia.
The incident occurred as the UN Security Council is expected to start negotiations this week on a resolution to back a plan agreed at the weekend by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry to destroy Syria’s chemical stockpile.
A cautious Turkey welcomed the U.S.-Russian accord but warned that Damascus could be seeking to buy more time for its deadly military campaign.
The Turkish-Syrian border, which is more than 500 miles long, has become increasingly tense. More than 500,000 refugees have fled the fighting in Syria. Half of them took up residence in camps while the remainder were spread throughout the country.
Relations have deteriorated between Damascus and Ankara, who were once close allies, since the outbreak of an uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the unleashing by the regime of a brutal crackdown against dissent in March 2011.
Turkey has consistently lobbied for the ouster of Assad and provided shelter for Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow the embattled leader.
The tensions escalated last year when Syrian defense forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet. Turkey had viewed the loss of its fighter jet as a hostile act and has taken steps to fortify its border with Syria.
And the Turkish military has repeatedly struck back in response to shelling and mortar rounds that landed on its territory since a deadly shelling hit a Turkish border town last October, killing five people, and prompted NATO to deploy Patriot missiles along the border.
Earlier on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported that a Syrian military helicopter had crashed near the Turkish border.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said the helicopter had landed on the Syrian side of the border and that rebel fighters had captured one of its two pilots.
The second pilot’s fate is unknown, he said.