ANKARA (Reuters) - The Turkish military on Friday tried to damp down speculation about the loss of one of its warplanes last month, repeating its assertion the jet was shot down by Syria and by something other than anti-aircraft fire.
Speculation in Turkey has been mounting since the armed forces released a written statement on Wednesday that appeared to contradict previous official accounts of the June 22 incident and suggested the military may be revising its initial stance.
In that statement, the General Staff referred to the aircraft which “Syrian official authorities subsequently claimed to have shot down”. The use of the word ‘claimed’, absent from previous accounts, aroused confusion over an incident which many Turks had initially feared could lead to a war.
Further adding to uncertainty over the plane’s fate, the armed forces statement declared no traces of “petroleum-based, combustible or fire accelerant substances, organic and inorganic explosive substance residues, or any kind of ammunition” were found on debris from the wreckage floating on the sea’s surface.
The lack of any further explanation in the statement prompted a flurry of speculation in the Turkish media over what had caused the F-4 reconnaissance jet to crash off the coast of Syria and whether it had even been shot down at all.
However, in another written statement on Friday, the military reasserted its position the jet had been brought down by Syria and said it had tried to make this clear to the public in all its previous statements.
It said the findings from examinations of the flotsam referred to in Wednesday’s statement meant the possibility of the plane being shot down by anti-aircraft fire “as Syria claims” had “disappeared”.
The loss of the plane raised tensions between Syria and Turkey, which has been harboring Syrian rebel forces and refugees on its territory and has called for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey dispatched its own air defense systems to its long frontier with Syria days after the incident.
While Syria said hours after it crashed into the Mediterranean that it had shot down the F-4 jet, official accounts from Ankara and Damascus differ over where and with what the jet was brought down.
Syria says it shot the F-4 jet in self-defense and without knowing that it was a Turkish aircraft. It says it shot the plane at close range with anti-aircraft fire after it flew into its air space at high speed and low altitude.
Turkey has said it violated Syrian air space accidentally for a few minutes but maintains its plane was shot down by a missile without warning, 13 nautical miles off the Syrian coast in international air space. It says all its identification systems were open.
According to international law, a country’s sovereign airspace extends 12 nautical miles from a nation’s coastline. Anti-aircraft fire is only effective up to a maximum 2.5 miles.
Writing by Jonathon Burch; editing by Andrew Roche