ANKARA, July 12 (Reuters) - Turkish armed forces statements over the loss of a warplane off the Syrian coast last month are fuelling speculation the military may be revising its initial assertion the plane was shot down by Syrian air defences in international airspace.
Turkish government spokesman Bulent Arinc, seeking to allay confusion over apparent contradictions emerging in official accounts of the plane's loss along with its two pilots, reasserted the original version to reporters on Thursday.
"It is better not to come to different conclusions by getting hung up on certain nuances. We are talking about an important subject. The Turkish jet was downed, the Syrian government which downed it has said 'we downed it'," he said.
But Turkish newspapers homed in on a military statement issued hours after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan himself complained on Wednesday of a "campaign inside Turkey and ... a campaign abroad" to misrepresent the June 22 incident.
The General Staff referred in the statement to the aircraft which "Syrian official authorities subsequently claimed to have shot down". The use of the word 'claimed', absent from previous accounts, aroused confusion over an incident which many Turks had initially feared could lead to a war.
The loss of the aircraft raised tensions between Syria and Turkey, which has been harbouring Syrian rebel forces and refugees on its territory and has called for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey dispatched its own air defence systems to its long frontier with Syria.
Turkey said after the incident that its aircraft was testing Turkish air defences. Some analysts have speculated that, flying low and fast as it was near the boundaries of both states, it could have been probing Syrian defences.
Further adding to uncertainty over the plane's fate, the armed forces statement declared that no traces of "petroleum-based, combustible or fire accelerant substances, organic and inorganic explosive substance residues, or any kind of ammunition" were found on debris from the wreckage floating on the sea's surface.
Hurriyet daily, quoting an unnamed retired Turkish admiral, said this statement meant there was no possibility of the jet having been brought down by a missile. Retired Brigadier-General Ali Er Wa s quoted as saying the statement could mean the plane had, for instance, crashed on an evasive manoeuvre.
The military has offered no clarification of its statement, despite several enquiries by Reuters.
"Okay, so how did this plane crash?" ran the front-page headline of the liberal daily Radikal on Thursday. "19 days later the discourse has changed," Milliyet said. "The military said 'claimed'," ran the headline in Cumhuriyet.
Syria said hours after it crashed into the Mediterranean that it had shot down the F-4 jet in self-defence and without knowing that it was a Turkish aircraft. It said it shot the plane at close range with anti-aircraft fire after it flew into its air space at high speed and low altitude.
Turkey has said it violated Syrian air space accidentally for a few minutes but maintains its plane was shot down by a missile in international air space and without any warning.
With many questions still unanswered, the military and government's handling of the incident may not be enough to satisfy everyone.
"The confusion sparked is not the kind to be forgotten easily, and with such clumsy moves Turkey is overshadowing its own thesis, supported by its NATO allies, that its plane was shot down without any warning, even if it had violated Syrian air space," wrote Murat Yetkin in Hurriyet Daily News. (Writing by Jonathon Burch)
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|