BEIRUT — Turkish air force jets intercepted and destroyed a Syrian fighter-bomber Sunday along the two nations’ shared border, leading the Syrian government to claim the plane was in Syrian airspace and the incident was "unwarranted aggression."
Turkish Prime Minister Tiyyap Erdogan, who faces increasing hostility from voters over a series of scandals and the unpopular decision last week to block the popular Twitter social media service, used the incident to rally supporters at a campaign stop.
"A Syrian plane violated our airspace. Our F-16s took off and hit this plane," he told a cheering crowd in northwest Turkey. "Why? Because if you violate my airspace, our slap after this will be hard."
"I congratulate the chief of general staff, the armed forces and those honorable pilots... I congratulate our air forces," he added.
Video shot by a Turkish news crew showed the MIG-23 aircraft crashing into a mountain on the Syrian side of the border. Turkish government accounts said that the plane was one of two that had crossed into Turkish airspace near the Kasab border crossing.
Turkish media accounts said Turkish forces warned the planes four times to leave Turkish airspace before shots were fired. The second plane escaped back into Syria unharmed.
The Syrian government immediately rejected Turkish versions of the event, saying that neither plane entered Turkish airspace and that the attack should be considered an unprovoked act of war.
Syria's foreign ministry said Turkey's "flagrant aggression against Syrian sovereignty in the Kasab border region over the past two days proves its involvement in the events in Syria."
Anti-government rebels, apparently led by the al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front and including groups associated with the umbrella Islamic Front, have been fighting to take control of the Kasab crossing for two days. The crossing lies in Latakia province, and its capture would provide a strategic point though which the rebels could move supplies from Turkey to their forces fighting to take control of Latakia, the mountainous coastal area that includes the ancestral home of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Rebel units appear to hold the crossing itself, but heavy fighting continues.
A statement by the monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the MIG-23 has been part of a two-day bombing campaign intended to repulse the rebel offensive.
Syrian rebel commanders have said that control of the Kasab Crossing is critical now that government forces have consolidated their control of the eastern border with Lebanon. The government success has pushed thousands of fighters into Lebanon, where Syrian planes regularly conduct air strikes without Lebanese permission.
It was the second time an aircraft had been downed as conflict raged near the border. In June 2012, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile took out a Turkish fighter jet that had strayed into Syrian airspace. At first Turkey acknowledged that the aircraft had entered Syrian airspace, but then complained that it was over international waters in the Mediterranean when it was downed. Searchers discovered the plane’s wreckage inside Syrian waters.
Turkish troops also have regularly fired artillery at Syrian government positions in retaliation for Syrian mortar rounds that have struck inside Turkey, where as many as 600,000 Syrian refugees have taken shelter.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero