x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Turkey scrambles jets over regime helicopter

Tensions flared between Turkey and Syria as two Turkish jets were deployed in response to a Syrian helicopter attack on a town near the border.

Syrian refugees stream into Turkey after crossing by boat near the village of Hacipasa in Hatay province.
Syrian refugees stream into Turkey after crossing by boat near the village of Hacipasa in Hatay province.

HACIPASA, Turkey // Turkey scrambled two fighter jets to the border with Syria yesterday as regime forces suffered setbacks on several fronts in fighting with rebels.

Tensions have been running high on the 900-kilometre border since Syrian shelling killed five Turkish civilians earlier this month, which prompted Turkey to return fire.

The Turkish F-16 aircraft were deployed near the border yesterday after a regime helicopter attacked the Syrian village of Azmarin near the town of Hacipasa in Turkey.

An official at the Hacipasa municipality said that the Syrian gunship "fired at least 10 to 15 times" into Azmarin in the early afternoon.

Just over an hour later, the Turkish jets appeared, although they came close to the border, they did not cross it, sources reported.

But the Syrian helicopter, which had been strafing Azmarin left the area when the jets appeared.

Fighting has escalated in Azmarin over the last week as forces loyal to Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, attempt defend it from rebels.

Yesterday morning, large billows of smoke rose from Azmarin followed explosions in the village along with the sounds of machine-gun fire.

Residents of Hacipasa watched the clashes from the rooftops of their houses.

"We cannot sleep from the sounds of bombs," said an elderly resident of Hacipasa named Serif.

Relations between Syria and Turkey have soured over Mr Al Assad's brutal crackdown on an uprising against his rule.

In another flare-up last week, Turkey forced a Syrian Air Airbus A320 flying from Moscow to Damascus to land in Ankara and seized some cargo, claiming the flight was carrying military equipment and ammunition to support the Syrian regime.

Russia said yesterday that no weapons were aboard a Syrian civilian jet grounded by Turkish authorities on Wednesday and the plane had been carrying a legal shipment of radar equipment.

"We have no secrets," said the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. "There were, of course, no weapons on the plane and could not have been any. There was a cargo on the plane that a legal Russian supplier was sending in a legal way to a legal customer," he told Russian state television.

A rebel offensive killed more than 100 soldiers yesterday and Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, including 14 soldiers in an attack on an army post in southern Deraa province yesterday. On Thursday, the army suffered 92 losses, its highest daily total in the conflict.

With about 20 deaths per day, the army has lost around 10,000 soldiers and had at least an equal number wounded in the conflict, a military hospital official said.

Rebels battled to hold onto Syria's main north-eastern motorway yesterday. Militant fighters who claimed to be part of the rebel group called Jabhat Al Nusra, which is accused of having links to Al Qaeda, reportedly captured a regime airbase near Aleppo, opposition activists claimed. Government forces also unleashed air strikes and artillery bombardments on the western city of Homs, activists said.

The official Sana news agency also reported fighting nationwide and said dozens of rebels, which it called "mercenary terrorists", had been killed.

Meanwhile, the United Nations should move quickly to assist rebel forces in Syria with arms and funding, and should support a no-fly zone to protect civilians caught in the middle of the country's escalating civil war, Qatar's foreign minister, Khalid Bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, said yesterday.

"If we leave Syria further, we will aggravate the situation more and more," he said.

He said that while Qatar providing support to Syrian rebels, it is not providing them with weapons.

"This we cannot do unless we have the blessing of the United Nations or our allies - the USA or European allies," he said.

Saudi King Abdullah held talks with international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on ways to end the crisis, the official SPA news agency reported. The talks held in Jeddah centred on "how to stop all the violence, bloodshed... and violations of human rights" in Syria.


* With additional reporting by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse