Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said it is not clear if a Turkish warplane reported missing near Syria was shot down by Syrian forces.
Erdoğan confirmed that the plane went down some 8 miles (13 kilometers) away from the Syrian town of Latakia over the Mediterranean Sea. "Four of our gunboats and some Syrian gunboats are carrying out a joint search there," he said.
News reports earlier in the day quoted Erdoğan as saying that Syria had apologized for downing the Turkish jet fighter but the prime minister, speaking at a news conference in Ankara, appeared to dismiss these reports, saying he had no information on such apology.
“I don't know if Syria apologized and if they did, why,” Erdoğan said, adding that a statement is to be made after a security meeting later in the day.
Erdoğan, citing lack of information, said he could not say why the Turkish plane was flying in that area. He said a detailed statement might be issued later on Friday following a security meeting with Cabinet ministers and military leaders. The meeting was originally called to discuss intensified attacks by the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.
If the Syrians did indeed bring down the Turkish F-4 jet, a new crisis could erupt between two prickly Middle Eastern neighbors already at bitter odds over a 16-month-old revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In his first public comments on the warplane's loss, Erdoğan took a measured tone, telling reporters he could not say whether the plane had crashed or been shot down.
"The chief of general staff has made the necessary statement about the missing plane. I am not saying it was brought down at the point it fell. It is not possible to say this without knowing the exact facts," Erdogan told a news conference.
He categorically dismissed reports that pilots of the jet fighter were taken hostage by Syrian forces. “We definitely have no such information,” Erdoğan said.
The prime minister spoke for 15 minutes about trips he had just completed to Mexico and Brazil before mentioning the loss of the plane in response to a question.
NATO-member Turkey, which had drawn close to Syria before the uprising against Assad, turned against the Syrian leader when he responded violently to pro-democracy protests inspired by popular upheavals elsewhere in the Arab world.
Ankara has previously floated the possibility of setting up some kind of safe haven or humanitarian corridor inside Syria, which would entail military intervention, but has said it would undertake no such action without UN Security Council approval.
Turkey hosts about 32,000 Syrian refugees and allows the Syrian Free Army to operate from its territory.
The news that Syrian air defences downed the plane was first reported by Al-Mayadeen, a Lebanon-based television channel launched this month that hopes to counter the influence of Arabic-language satellite stations such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, both funded by Sunni Gulf Arab countries that have backed the revolt against Assad.
Russia and China, Assad's strongest backers abroad, have fiercely opposed any outside interference in the Syrian crisis, saying envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan is the only way forward.