BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad said he regrets the shooting down of a Turkish jet by his forces, and that he will not allow tensions between the two neighbours to deteriorate into an “armed conflict,” a Turkish newspaper reported Tuesday.
Syria downed the RF-4E warplane on June 22. Syria says it hit the aircraft after flew very low inside its airspace, while Turkey says the jet was hit in international airspace after it briefly strayed into Syria.
In an interview with the Cumhuriyet daily, Assad offered no apology, insisting that the plane was shot down over Syria and that his forces acted in self-defence.
He said that the plane was flying in a corridor inside Syrian airspace that had been used by Israeli planes in 2007, when they bombed a building under construction in northern Syria. The UN nuclear agency has said that the building was a nearly finished reactor meant to produce plutonium, which can be used to arm nuclear warheads.
“The plane was using the same corridor used by Israeli planes three times in the past,” Assad told Cumhuriyet. “Soldiers shot it down because we did not see it on our radars and we were not informed about it.”
Assad said: “I say 100 per cent, I wish we did not shoot it down.”
Commenting for the first time on a U.N.-brokered plan for a political transition in Syria that was adopted by world powers at a conference in Geneva on Saturday, Assad said he was “pleased” that the decision about Syria’s future was left to its people.
The plan calls for the creation of a transitional government with full executive powers in Syria. But at Russia’s insistence, the compromise left the door open to Assad being part of the interim administration and left its composition entirely up to the “mutual consent” of the Assad administration and its opponents.
“The Syrian people will decide on everything,” Assad said.
The conflict in Syria has killed more than 14,000 people since the revolt began in March 2011, according to opposition estimates. The fighting has grown increasingly militarized in recent months.
, with rebel forces launching attacks and ambushes on regime targets.
A convoy carrying U.N. observers in Syria headed to the besieged and battered Damascus suburb of Douma Tuesday to visit hospitals, but turned back due to the security situation in the town. A team from the International Committee for the Red Cross and the Syria Red Crescent was touring the suburb, ICRC Rabab Rifai said.
Syrian troops flushed out rebels from Douma on Saturday after a 10-day assault that left dozens dead, hundreds wounded and caused a major humanitarian crisis. But activists said fighting was still going on near the southern edge of the town.
Activist Mohammad Saeed, who fled the town during the assault and was now in hiding nearby, said regime forces have stationed snipers on rooftops and that several people were killed Tuesday.
Government troops on Sunday continued to pound rebel controlled towns and villages across the country including the towns of Talbiseh and Rastan in Syria’s central region as well as districts in the city of Homs.
Turkey has responded to the downing of its warplane by deploying anti-aircraft missiles on the Syrian border. It also scrambled jets Tuesday for the third consecutive day after it said Syrian helicopters approached its border. A search for the wreckage of the plane and its two missing pilots is still under way in Syrian waters.
Assad said Syria had no intention of fueling tensions along its border with NATO-member Turkey.
“We will not allow it to turn into an armed conflict that would harm both countries,” he said. “We did not build up our forces on the Turkish border and we will not.”
He said Syria “would have apologized” for the shooting if the plane had not been shot down in Syrian airspace. He said the rise of tensions could have been prevented if channels of communication between the two militaries remained open.
“We are in a state of war, so every unidentified plane is an enemy plane,” the paper quoted Assad as saying. “Let me state it again: We did not have the slightest idea about its identity when we shot it down.”
Turkey, however, has insisted that the plane’s electronic signals, which indicate if an aircraft is friend or foe, were activated during the entire flight and that Turkey even intercepted radio conversations in which Syrian forces referred to the plane.
Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, citing intelligence sources, reported early last week that Syrian forces referred to the plane using the word for “neighbour” in an intercepted radio conversation.
Turkey also insisted that the plane was not spying on Syria but just testing Turkey’s radar capabilities.
An international human rights watchdog, meanwhile, says it has identified the location of 27 torture centres run by Syrian intelligence agencies based on testimony from former detainees and defectors. Human Rights Watch said the systematic patterns of torture documented points to a state policy of torture and constitute a crime against humanity.
It said it has documented more than 20 distinct torture methods used by the regime.
“The intelligence agencies are running an archipelago of torture centres scattered across the country,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at HRW.
Hacaoglu reported from Turkey.