ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey scrambled six F-16 fighter jets in three separate incidents responding to Syrian military helicopters approaching the border on Sunday, its armed forces command said on Monday.
It was the second day in a row that Turkish jets were launched in response to Syrian helicopters approaching the border and came after a Turkish reconnaissance plane was shot down by Syria late last month.
The jets took off from Incirlik air base in southern Turkey after Syrian helicopters were spotted flying south of the Turkish province of Hatay, the chief of general staff said on the military’s website.
Two helicopters had come within 2.5 miles and one had come within 2 miles of the border, it said. Two of the helicopters were MI-8 type aircraft and one was an MI-17, all Russian-built transport helicopters.
On Sunday, Turkey said it had scrambled six F-16s near its border with Syria after similar transport helicopters were spotted flying either within 4 miles of the border or “close” to the border.
Turkey’s heightened military activity along its southern border comes after Syria shot down one of its jets over the Mediterranean on June 22, prompting a sharp rebuke from Ankara which said it would respond “decisively”.
NATO member Turkey has beefed up its troop presence and air defenses along the border since the incident and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the military’s rules of engagement had been changed and that any Syrian element approaching Turkey’s border and deemed a threat would be treated as a military target.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen commended Turkey “for having shown restraint”.
At an emergency meeting in Brussels last week, NATO allies condemned Syria’s shooting down of the Turkish military plane, but stopped short of threatening a military response.
“I find it quite normal that Turkey takes necessary steps to protect its population and its territory,” Rasmussen told a news conference in Brussels.
Syria says it shot down the Turkish jet in self-defense and that it was brought down in Syrian air space. Turkey says the jet accidentally violated Syrian air space for a few minutes but was brought down in international air space.
While the incident has heightened tension between the once-close allies, neither Turkey, which fears a local clash escalating into a regional sectarian conflict, nor Syria, has any interest in a confrontation on their shared border.
Turkey has become increasingly vocal against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, calling for him to step down, and has given sanctuary to rebels and groups opposing the Syrian leader. There are more than 35,000 Syrian refugees living in camps on the Turkish side of the border with Syria.
Separately, Turkey’s armed forces command said it had carried out air strikes on three separate Kurdish militant targets in northern Iraq between the dates of June 26-30 and had killed 25 “terrorists” and wounded 23.
The strikes were carried out in the Qandil and Zab areas and targeted shelters belonging to the “separatist terror organization”, a term used to describe the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which is fighting for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, it said. No further details were given.
The PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, began its separatist insurgency in 1984. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the ensuing conflict.
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Robin Pomeroy