Syrian army officers defect to Turkey

A Syrian general and 38 other soldiers defected to Turkey, state television said, days after Syria shot down a Turkish warplane, escalating tensions between the two neighbours.

Turkey has summoned a Nato meeting for today to agree a response to the downing of its military reconnaissance jet in what it says was an attack without warning carried out over international airspace.

Turkey’s cabinet was meeting last night to discuss Friday’s attack, which lent a more menacing international dimension to the 16-month-old uprising against President Bashar al Assad. Britain said it could press for more serious action at the UN Security Council.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg called for a calm response from Turkey, saying they would increase pressure on Assad. However, there seemed to be little appetite for any military retaliation against Syria.

“Military intervention in Syria is out of the question,” said Dutch foreign minister Uri Rosenthal. “It is not a matter of consideration for the Dutch government. That is also at stake in the… context of Nato.”

The new defections from Mr Assad’s armed forces could encourage those awaiting a disintegration of Mr Assad’s army. However, there has been little indication of any broader trend to desertion in the senior ranks of the armed forces, bound often to the regime by their Alawite background — a mystical Islamic sect.

A Syrian general, two colonels, two majors, a lieutenant, and their families — altogether 199 people — crossed into Turkey overnight, CNN Turk said. Thirteen Syrian generals are now in Turkey, which is believed to be giving logistical support to the Free Syrian Army, though Ankara denies arming the rebels.

The search for the plane and missing crew continued in the east Mediterranean, close to the maritime borders of both countries.

Analysts think it unlikely that Turkey — even with the second biggest army in Nato at 500,000 — would opt, at least for now, for military action against Syria.

“I don’t think Turkey’s response will be a military one,” said Cagri Erhan, a professor of political science at Ankara University.

“War is not one of the options. Turkey will act in line with measures taken within Nato.”

Meanwhile, fierce fighting continued inside Syria, which has a 900km border with Turkey, with rebel fighters killing dozens of soldiers in the last few days as they fight army attacks on towns and villages across Syria, according to opposition sources.

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