June 2012 interception of Turkish aircraft
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The June 2012 interception of Turkish aircraft by the Syrian Armed Forces on 22 June 2012 resulted in the shooting down of a Turkish F-4 reconnaissance jet. The jet's pilots were killed; both Turkish and Syrian forces searched for them before recovering their bodies in early July. The incident was part of a series of incidents between Turkey and Syria since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War and greatly escalated the tensions between the two countries.
Syria–Turkey relations were already marred by the Turkish pilgrim bus attack. Also, on 9 April 2012, the Syrian envoy to Turkey was summoned after Syrian forces fired across the Syria–Turkey border. At least two people were killed and many others injured in the incident.
The aircraft, piloted by Flight lieutenant Gökhan Ertan and Flying officer Hasan Hüseyin Aksoy, took off on 22 June 2012 with the task to help test the Turkish radar system. According to radar records, the aircraft was flying between Cyprus and Hatay over the Mediterranean Sea at about FL210, an altitude of 21,000 feet, at 11:06 hours local time (08:06 UTC). For radar test purposes, it descended as it approached Hatay. At 11:14 hours, the RF-4E was at FL086, and nine minutes later it had descended to FL075 just over Hatay. At 11:23 hours, the aircraft changed its course, heading now for Mediterranean Sea and continued to descend. At 11:37, it had reached FL020 and was descending further for radar test purposes. The aircraft arrived at 11:42 on the boundary of Syrian sovereign airspace, 12 nmi (22 km) out from the coastline, flying at 200 ft.
At this point, the aircraft violated Syrian airspace, and flew around for five minutes within its airspace. A Turkish radar base controlling the flight warned the RF-4E to change its course immediately and leave that airspace. At 11:47, it left Syrian airspace and took course towards north in direction Hatay ascending to FL030. During its violation and shortly after, the aircraft received no warning or admonishment at all from Syrian military authorities. The pilots changed their course once again into Mediterranean Sea in order to proceed with their mission of radar testing. At 11:50, the pilots asked the Turkish radar base for assistance on route information in order not to cause any other airspace violation. The aircraft was flying in international airspace visible on radar screen until 12:02.
Event and aftermath
On 22 June 2012, Syria shot down the Turkish F-4 Phantom II military jet near the Turkish-Syrian border.The navies of Turkey and Syria then searched for the missing crewmembers, before Turkish personnel recovered their bodies in early July 2012.
United States research vessel EV Nautilus arrived three days later at the crash site to join the search and rescue operations. Her two remotely operated vehicles Hercules and Argus conducted search at the seabed in 1,280 m (4,200 ft) depth and located the debris of the aircraft, and brought parts of the downed jet up to the surface. The bodies of the pilots were elevated on 4 July 2012 with the help of a specially for this purpose constructed device in a 45-minute operation.
The Syrian military alleged that the fighter aircraft had violated Syrian airspace. However, Turkish president Abdullah Gül and other spokesmen have not confirmed this, though Gül said that "it is routine for jet fighters to sometimes fly in and out over [national] borders".
Gül stated that "it is not possible to cover over a thing like this. Whatever is necessary will no doubt be done." A Turkish political party leader claimed that the jet had been shot down by a Russian warship, and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç also claimed that it was hit by a laser-guided or heat-seeking missile, not anti-aircraft fire as the Syrian Government claimed.
On 3 July 2012, the Syrian President responded that he regretted the incident and would not allow any open conflict with Turkey.
On 29 September, alleged secret documents were leaked by the Syrian opposition to Al Arabiya, saying that the two pilots had survived the shoot down, which was done in coordination with the Russian naval facility in Tartus, and were captured but later executed. One of the alleged reports, sent to Syrian Intelligence, reads in part, "Based on information and guidance from the Russian leadership comes a need to eliminate the two Turkish pilots detained by the Special Operations Unit in a natural way and their bodies need to be returned to the crash site in international waters." It suggests the Syrian government sends a "menacing" message to the Turkish government from the danger it might face in case of any hostile move. The report insists that the Syrian leadership should hasten and make a formal apology to the Turkish government for bringing down the plane, which would embarrass the Turks and win the support of international public opinion. As such, they did apologize.
The change in Turkey's policy towards Syrian attacks led to a series of border clashes in October.
Missile warning theory
It is alleged that the plane's pilots noticed an impending Syrian missile but instead of ejecting, attempted but failed to save the jet.
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