Syrian soldiers defect to Turkey as tensions soar

By Suzan Fraser

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 25 2012 5:55 a.m. MDT

Turkish coast guard searches for the Turkish warplane which was downed by Syria on Friday off Samandagi in Hatay province in the eastern Mediterranean, Sunday, June 24, 2012. Turkey would seek the meeting over article 4 of the NATO charter concerning Friday's incident. The article says member countries "will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened." (AP Photo)

The Associated Press

ANKARA, Turkey — Dozens of Syrian soldiers defected overnight to Turkey, crossing the border with their families as tensions between the two countries soared three days after Syrian forces shot down a Turkish military plane.

The state-run Anadolu news agency said 33 soldiers defected, including a general and two colonels. But a Turkish government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules, said the group included three colonels and there was no general.

The two accounts could not immediately be reconciled.

Thousands of soldiers have abandoned the Syrian regime, but most are low-level conscripts. The rebel Free Syrian Army — which is based in Turkey — is made up largely of defectors.

Anadolu said a total of 224 people crossed into Turkey overnight, the latest blow to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, and the death toll mounts every day.

There are widespread fears that the conflict could spark regional unrest — and those fears mounted Friday when Syrian forces shot a Turkish military plane out of the sky.

Syria insists that the Turkish plane violated its air space. But Turkey disagrees, saying that though the plane had unintentionally strayed into Syria's air space, it was inside international airspace when it was brought down.

In recent days, both sides appeared to be trying to calm tensions over the incident.

Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday his country has "no hostility" toward Turkey.

"We behaved in a defensive and sovereign way," Jihad Makdissi said in the Syrian capital. He said the search was still underway for two missing Turkish airmen who were on the plane.

Ankara has called a meeting of NATO's governing body on Tuesday to discuss the incident. Allies can request such consultations if they feel their territorial integrity or security are threatened.

Turkey's Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz, meanwhile, suggested Turkey will cut electricity supplies to Syria. Turkish companies provide Syria with around 10 percent of Syria's annual power consumption. Yildiz said a decision on the issue could be announced Tuesday.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to address legislators in parliament Tuesday and reveal what measures Turkey will take against Damascus for downing down the plane.

Also Monday, the Red Cross said hundreds of civilians are trapped in the Syrian city of Homs and aid workers cannot reach them because of the fighting. Homs has been one of the hardest-hit areas in Syria as regime forces try to crush the opposition.

The defectors who crossed into Turkey overnight were brought to a refugee camp in Hatay, a province bordering Syria. Turkey is host to some 33,000 Syrians who are seeking refuge from the violence.

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