ISTANBUL, TURKEY (BNO NEWS) — Turkey scrambled fighter jets three separate times on Saturday as Syrian helicopters approached the tense border area, but there was no violation of Turkish airspace, the country’s armed forces command said on Sunday.
Two F-16 fighter jets took off from Incirlik airbase after 9 a.m. local time on Saturday when a Syrian helicopter came within 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) of the border in Turkey’s Hatay province. Two more fighter jets took off after 3 p.m. local time when another Syrian helicopter approached the same border.
Hours later, after 6 p.m. local time, a third Syrian helicopter approached the border area south of Turkey’s Mardin province. A statement from Turkey’s armed forces said it again scrambled two F-16 fighter jets to patrol the border area as a precaution, but no violation of Turkish airspace was reported.
Saturday’s incidents underscore rising tensions between the two nations after Syria’s shoot-down of a Turkish fighter jet on June 22. The incident happened when a Turkish RF-4E aircraft was flying over the Mediterranean Sea, southwest of Hatay province which borders Syria. The plane had left Erhaç airbase in Malatya province at 10:30 a.m. local time that morning and went missing at 11:58 a.m. local time.
The Turkish government has said its reconnaissance jet unintentionally strayed into Syrian airspace but was inside international airspace when it was shot down. However, the Syrian government has called these statements baseless and inaccurate, insisting that the aircraft was approximately 1 to 2 kilometers (0.6 to 1.2 mile) off the Syrian coast and approaching it with a speed of 800 kilometers (497 miles) per hour.
Most of the international community, including the North Atlantic Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), strongly condemned Syria for the shoot-down. “We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said following a meeting with ambassadors of all 28 NATO member states. “It is another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life.”
In the wake of the incident, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said its military forces have changed the rules of engagement along its border with Syria. He said any military aircraft that approaches the Turkish border from Syria will be regarded as a treat and treated as a military target. He claimed Syrian helicopters recently violated Turkish airspace five times before the June 22 incident, without a response from Turkey.
It remains unclear whether the two pilots survived the crash on June 22, but Erdoğan previously rejected speculation that the crew members were captured by Syrian forces, saying there is no evidence of that. The wreckage of the plane was located in Syrian territorial waters west of Om al-Tuyour, a village in the northern province of Lattakia, with no sign of the crew members.