ANKARA, (AFP) — The bodies of the two pilots of a Turkish fighter jet that was downed by Syria last month have been recovered at the bottom of the eastern Mediterranean sea, the Turkish army said Wednesday.
“The bodies have been recovered on the seabed and work is underway to bring them to the surface,” the army command said in a statement.
It maintained that the two-seater F-4 Phantom was shot down in international airspace by Syrian fire on June 22, but said the wreckage of the downed fighter has not yet been spotted.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Tuesday he regretted that his country’s defence forces shot down the jet, but insisted the plane was in Syrian airspace at the time.
The incident has exacerbated tensions between the one-time allies, with Ankara vowing a harsh response to any border violations by Syria and both sides have seen military reinforcements to the frontier.
Some media reports, including in the international press, say the plane was in Syrian airspace and was shot down by shore-based anti-aircraft guns after the Turkish jet provoked Syrian air defences.
But Turkish officials dispute the reports, insisting the plane was brought down by surface-to-air missiles, which have longer ranges and can strike down the aircraft in international airspace.
Turkey has been keeping close track of air traffic near the border, scrambling fighter jets in at least three instances where Syrian helicopters flew too close, according to the army.
Turkey was once a close ally of Syria, but relations have broken down since the revolt erupted there, sending more than 33,000 refugees across the border.