Assad regrets downing Turkish jet: paper

ISTANBUL Tue Jul 3, 2012 6:21am EDT

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has told a Turkish newspaper he wished his forces had not shot down a Turkish jet last month and that he would not allow tensions between the neighboring countries to turn into open combat.

Fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels seeking to unseat Assad is worsening, increasingly taking on the character of an all-out civil war, fuelled by sectarian hatred.

"We learned that it (the plane) belonged to Turkey after shooting it down. I say 100 percent 'if only we had not shot it down'," the Cumhuriyet newspaper quoted Assad as saying in an interview published on Tuesday.

A Turkish minister dismissed Assad's comments as a public relations game.

Asked whether the increased friction between Syria and Turkey could lead to war, Assad said: "We will not allow (the tensions) to turn into open combat between the two countries, which would harm them both."

He also said Syria had not and would not build up its military forces along the Turkish border, whatever action Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government takes.

The paper did not specify when the interview was held, but in it Assad refers to an international meeting held in Geneva on Saturday under the auspices of peace envoy Kofi Annan.

Assad said he was satisfied with the communique from the meeting of U.N. Security Council members and regional powers which agreed a transitional Syrian government should be set up, but left unclear whether the president would have to step down.

"There is only thing that interests me in the text. It is this sentence: "The future of Syria will be decided by the Syrian people." If that sentence is there, that's enough for us," Assad said.

"We will discuss everything within a framework which recognizes Syrian sovereignty, but we will not allow anyone to interfere with our sovereignty," he told the newspaper.

"NO ONE TO CALL"

Turkey has heightened military activity along its southern border since Syria shot down the Turkish jet over the Mediterranean on June 22, prompting a sharp rebuke from Ankara, which said it would respond "decisively".

Syria says it downed the jet in self-defense and that it was targeted in Syrian air space. Turkey says the jet accidentally violated Syrian air space for a few minutes but was later brought down in international air space.

Assad said Syria no longer had any contacts with the Turkish military that it would normally have with a neighboring state so as to avoid just this sort of incident.

"It's a shame that now we don't even have the telephone number of a single commander in the Turkish army we can call in an emergency situation," he said.

Assad said Syria would not shy away from apologizing if it emerged that the plane was shot down in international air space.

"The plane was using a corridor which Israeli planes have used three times before. Soldiers shot it down because we did not see it on our radar and because information was not given.

"Of course I might have been happy if this had been an Israeli plane," Assad added.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Assad was trying to curry favor with public opinion and dismissed the suggestion it was flying in air space often used by Israel.

"It is nothing new that Israel uses these corridors, they constantly use them," he told Turkish state television. "If the Syrian administration says it shot it, thinking it was an Israeli plane, then they would have shot many Israeli planes down by now."

Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Ankara had no intention of cutting off water to Syria but was reviewing its electricity supplies to its southern neighbor. Syria normally produces more electricity than it consumes, so the impact of Turkey pulling the plug would probably be limited.

(Writing by Daren Butler and Jon Hemming; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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