By Jonathon Burch
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey has accused Syria of shooting down one of its military reconnaissance jets in international airspace without warning and summoned a NATO meeting for Tuesday to agree a response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey's cabinet was due to meet on Monday to discuss Friday's incident, which lent a more threatening international dimension to the 16-month-old uprising against Assad. Britain called the attack over the eastern Mediterranean outrageous and said it stood ready to back strong action in the United Nations.
Turkish newspapers welcomed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's decision to invoke an article in the NATO alliance's founding treaty providing for urgent consultations if a member considered its security interests threatened.
"Turkey has moved into action" both Milliyet and Vatan newspapers declared in headlines under the NATO flag.
Sabah newspaper columnist Mehmet Barlas said some were calling Friday's attack a Syrian declaration of war. "We already know there is an 'undeclared war' being carried out between Turkey and Syria," he said, citing the presence of the Syrian opposition and Syrian refugees sheltering on Turkish soil.
Fierce fighting continued inside Syria, which has a 900 km (550 mile) border with Turkey, with rebel fighters killing dozens of soldiers in the last few days as they fought against army attacks on towns and villages in central, north and eastern Syria in the last several days, according to opposition sources.
Syrian tanks and artillery shelled the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, killing at least 20 people in the second day of heavy bombardment in the country's main oil-producing region, opposition activists said.
"Regime forces have dismantled their roadblocks from inside of Deir al-Zor after incurring heavy losses from rebels. They have withdrawn from residential areas and are now shelling the city from the outskirts. The victims are mostly civilians," a source at a hospital in Deir al-Zor told Reuters.
The official state news agency said "terrorists" abducted a state-appointed head of clerics in Deir al-Zor and blew up an oil pipeline passing through the province.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an opposition activists' organization that monitors the crackdown on the 16-month revolt against Assad's rule, said loyalist forces on Sunday killed another 70 people, mostly civilians and soldiers who had tried to defect, elsewhere in the country in shelling, military raids and summary executions in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deraa and suburbs of Damascus.
The intensification of the fighting has raised fears in Turkey of a flood of refugees and a slide into ethnic and religious warfare that could envelop the region. Ankara, like the West, is torn between a wish to remove Assad and the fear that any armed intervention could unleash uncontrollable forces.
WASHINGTON CONDEMNS ATTACK
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the attack "brazen and unacceptable" and said Washington would cooperate closely with Ankara to promote a transition in Syria. Spanish government sources said European Union foreign ministers would also discuss the incident at a Luxembourg meeting on Monday.
While Turkish newspapers have railed against Assad, Erdogan, not always known for his emotional restraint, has eschewed bellicose rhetoric.
The prime minister, who turned against former ally Assad bitterly after he refused his advice to bow to demands for democratic reform, seemed to back away from any suggestion of an armed response. If he sought some kind of retaliation from the NATO meeting set for Tuesday, he could have invoked another article on mutual defense. That he did not suggests the reaction will remain at least for now on the diplomatic stage.
The foreign ministry said Turkey knew where the wreckage of the RF-4 Phantom jet lay, 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) under water, but had not yet found it. Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the search continued for the two crew.
He said the jet had been clearly marked as Turkish and dismissed Syria's assertion it had not identified the aircraft, flying low and very fast, before opening fire.
Some analysts said the aircraft could have been testing Syria's Russian-supplied radar and air defenses, which would be an obstacle to any possible Western armed action.
Russia, which along with Iran is Damascus's chief ally, has provided most of Syria's arms and has access to a deep water naval base in the country.
Davutoglu said he planned to set out Turkey's case to the U.N. Security Council where Western powers are seeking, against Russian and Chinese opposition, to push through a motion that could allow stronger measures against Assad.
Moscow has made clear it would continue to veto such a move, which it fears could undermine its interests in Syria and wreak anarchy. That apparent inevitability forces the focus for any stronger action on NATO.
Davutoglu said the jet was unarmed and had been on a solo mission to test domestic radar systems, but acknowledged it had briefly crossed Syrian airspace in the area close to both countries' maritime frontiers 15 minutes before it was hit.
"Our plane was shot at a distance of 13 sea miles from Syria's border in international airspace," Davutoglu said.
"According to the radar images, our plane lost contact with headquarters after it was hit and because the pilot lost control, it crashed into Syrian waters after making abnormal movements," he said. "Throughout this entire period no warning was made to our plane."
As if to underline its military reach, Turkey's military announced that over the last three days it had carried out air strikes in northern Iraq against nine bases for Kurdish militants fighting for greater autonomy in southeastern Turkey.
(Editing by Ralph Gowling and Eric Walsh)