Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has told leaders of the opposition parties that Turkish radars were unable to confirm that a Turkish military jet downed by Syria on Friday was hit by a land-to-air missile, according to media reports on Tuesday.
Erdoğan, who met with opposition leaders on Sunday, said during the talks that the aircraft could have been hit by shoulder-launched rockets or anti-aircraft fire from a ship in the area, said the Habertürk daily.
Another report, published in the Hürriyet daily, quoted Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş as saying that Erdoğan told the BDP delegation that the missile could have been launched from a mobile launcher. The prime minister was responding to a question from Demirtaş about why the pilots of the plane did not eject given the fact that they were supposed to receive a radar warning if a missile was launched against the F4 jet. Officials accompanying Erdoğan said in response that no missile was detected by the aircraft’s radar system or land-based Turkish radars, according to the report. But the prime minister insisted that the plane was shot down 13 miles off the Syrian coast and said there is no way the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire from Syrian territory.
Turkey says the plane, on a training mission to test domestic radar system, was hit in international airspace by Syria without warning in a “hostile act.” Syria, on the other hand, says the plane was flying fast and low, at an altitude of 100 meters, and that it was only one kilometer off the Syrian coast when it was shot down. Syria also says the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire, with the bullets having a range of only 2.5 kilometers, rather than by a radar-guided missile.
The wreckage of the plane is lying deep in Mediterranean waters and the whereabouts of the two pilots remain unknown. Syria, which joined Turkey in search and rescue efforts, claims it has handed over the tail section of the plane, which bears visible bullet holes, to Turkey.
Erdoğan also reportedly told the opposition leaders that the pilots might have mixed up Turkish and Syrian capes, which happen to look very similar. Erdoğan showed two capes on a map, one in Hatay and the other in Syria’s Latakia, and said the pilot, who did not use radar navigation because he knew the area very well, might have mistakenly thought the cape in Latakia was the one in Hatay, Habertürk reported.
Speaking after a Cabinet meeting on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said Turkey believes the plane was hit with a laser-guided or heat-guided missile, both of which would have been capable of hitting the plane while it was in international airspace.
The deputy prime minister admitted that the jet had mistakenly strayed into Syrian airspace when flying at an altitude of 200 feet and at a speed of 300 knots, but said it left Syrian airspace after receiving a warning from Turkish radar operators and that it received no warning from Syrian forces during its five-minute flight inside Syrian territory. “It was hit while flying 13 miles off the Syrian coast at an altitude of 7,400 feet,” Arınç said. “It leaned to the left and fell steeply four miles eastward.”
Arınç said the plane fell into Syrian waters and that the wreckage is believed to be 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) below the surface. He also said Syria has been misleading the world in saying it did not recognize the plane until after it had been downed.
He asserted that the plane’s electronic signals, which indicate if an aircraft is friend or foe, were activated throughout the flight and that Turkey had even intercepted radio conversations in which Syrian forces had referred to the plane as Turkish. Arınç did not elaborate, but Turkish media citing intelligence sources reported on Monday that Syrian forces referred to the plane using the Turkish word for neighbor, “komşu,” in an intercepted radio communication.
Arınç reiterated Turkey’s insistence that the plane was not spying on Syria, but testing Turkey’s radar systems. “There is no doubt that the Syrians deliberately targeted our plane in international airspace,” Arınç said. “It was an extremely hostile act.”