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Turkey will consult NATO over shooting down of plane by Syria

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BEIRUT — Turkey said Sunday that it will consult its NATO allies next week over how to respond to the shooting down by Syria of a Turkish plane after inquiries showed that the plane was over international waters when the incident occurred.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu disputed Syria’s version of the event, telling state broadcaster TRT that the plane bore clear Turkish markings and was not in Syrian airspace when it was shot down without warning by Syria on Friday.

In Brussels, a NATO spokeswoman said NATO will meet on Tuesday after Turkey invoked article 4 of the NATO charter, which gives any member state the right to “request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened,” Turkish media reported.

According to Syria’s account of the incident, the plane was flying at high speed and low altitude toward Syria and was over Syrian territorial waters when it was brought down by anti-aircraft artillery.

Davutoglu said the plane had briefly strayed into Syrian airspace, but left when warned by Turkey, suggesting it was headed away from the coast at the time. He added that the plane was not spying on Syria, and had been on a training mission.

Search crews in the Mediterranean have so far failed to find any sign of the two pilots who went missing along with the plane. Turkish news channels reported Sunday that the wreckage of the jet had been located.

The incident sent tensions soaring between two neighbors already at odds over the 15-month old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, and raised regional concerns that the armed conflict in Syria risks spilling beyond its borders.

It also presented Turkey with a dilemma at a time when an effort to aid the rebel Free Syrian Army is gearing up along the Turkish border, in collaboration with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States. A conflict with Syria now could rapidly spiral into a regional war, yet few in the international community have expressed any appetite for military intervention.

On Saturday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul warned that Turkey was not prepared to let the shooting pass without response. Even if the Turkish plane had briefly strayed into Syrian airspace, such events were “a little bit routine” along the two countries’ 566-mile border, he said.

“It is not possible to cover over a thing like this,” the state news agency Anatolia quoted him as saying. “Whatever is necessary will be done.”

Turkey recalled all of its diplomats from the Syrian capital, Damascus, months ago, in just one sign of how far the two countries’ once warm relationship has deteriorated since the Syrian uprising erupted in March last year.

Several Turkish government officials urged restraint. “We must remain calm and collected,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said, according to the Associated Press. “We must not give premium to any provocative speeches and acts.”

In Baghdad, Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, expressed anxiety about the regional implications of the crisis, at a time when the conflict in Syria is taking on increasingly sectarian dimensions.

“Our main concern is the spillover of the crisis into neighboring countries,” he told a news conference in Baghdad, speaking alongside his Swedish, Bulgarian and Polish counterparts. “No country is immune from this spillover because of the composition of the societies, the extensions, the connections, the sectarian, ethnic dimensions.”

The shooting came a day after the defection to Jordan of a Syrian pilot, who flew his MiG-21 fighter jet across Syria’s southern border and sought political asylum. The defection prompted speculation that Syria’s air defense forces may have been on alert for — or seeking to deter — further defections.

Syria’s account of the incident, however, claimed that the gunners who opened fire at the plane did so because it was approaching Syrian territory and they regarded it as a threat.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi has since sought to play down the incident, stressing on his Twitter account and in an interview with a Turkish TV station that Syria was responding to a perceived threat and had since joined in the search for the missing pilots.

“There was no hostile act against Turkey whatsoever,” he told the A Haber TV network Saturday. “It was just an act of defense for our sovereignty.”

Special correspondent Jabbar Yaseen in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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