ANKARA — Syria's President Bashar al-Assad said Tuesday he regretted that his country's defence forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet on June 22, but still insisted the plane was in Syrian airspace.
"I would have wished 100 percent that we had not attacked it," he said two weeks after the F-4 Phantom jet on a training mission was shot at and crashed into the Mediterranean off Syria.
"The plane was flying in an air corridor used three times in the past by the Israeli airforce," Assad said as an explanation of his military's action in an interview with a Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet.
"A country at war always acts like this, this plane was flying at a very low altitude and was shot down by anti-aircraft defences which mistook it for an Israeli plane, which attacked Syria in 2007," Assad said, rejecting Turkey's accusations that the Syrians intentionally targeted the jet.
He said the soldier who shot down the plane had no radar and could not know to which country the plane belonged.
Assad sent his condolences to the families of the two pilots of the downed plane, who have not been found.
"If this plane had been shot down in international airspace (as maintained by Ankara) we would not have hesitated to apologise," he added.
The Syrian leader expressed the desire to turn the page on the incident which has fuelled tensions between the two former allies.
Turkey viewed the loss of its fighter jet as a hostile act and has taken steps to fortify its border with Syria.
"We do not want to even consider that this plane was sent deliberately into our airspace," Assad said.
"We want to think of it as a pilot's error and we would consider this an isolated incident, which shouldn't be exaggerated ... We have nothing to gain in attacking a Turkish fighter jet."
In another bid to assuage relations with Ankara, Assad said Syria had no plans to send troops to the border with Turkey, even after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan sent reinforcements of Turkish troops to the frontier.
On Friday, a top Syrian opposition leader in exile in Turkey claimed that some 2,500 Syrian troops were amassing about 15 kilometres (nine miles) from the border.
"Despite whatever the Erdogan government does, we will not proceed with a concentration of troops at the border," said Assad. "The Turkish people are friends and understand us."
Since the uprising against the Assad regime began in March last year, triggering a bloody crackdown, more than 16,500 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in violence, according to human rights groups.
Turkey, once a strong ally in the region, has severed ties with Damascus over its repression of dissent and has welcomed to its territory more than 35,000 Syrian refugees, deserting soldiers and the main figures of the Syrian opposition in exile.
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