More than 100 people were reported killed Saturday in violence across Syria, as Turkey downplayed the Syrian shooting down of a Turkish plane while President Bashar al-Assad formed a new cabinet with key posts unchanged.
NATO member Ankara acknowledged that one of its warplanes may have violated Syrian airspace after Damascus confirmed shooting down the F-4 Phantom on Friday, in comments seen as a bid to cool the latest spat between the former allies.
“An unidentified aerial target violated Syrian airspace, coming from the west at a very low altitude and at high speed over territorial waters,” a Syrian military spokesman told the official SANA news agency.
Anti-aircraft batteries hit the plane about a kilometre from the coast and it crashed some 10 kilometres (six miles) off Latakia province, he added.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said it was not unusual for warplanes flying at high speed to cross maritime borders, stressing that such actions were not “ill-intentioned.”
Naval forces from both nations were searching for the two missing crew.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 102 people, two-thirds of them civilians, were killed in violence across the country on Saturday as regime forces stepped up attacks on towns.
The Britain-based monitoring group said 69 civilians were killed in bombardment of rebel bastions, including a family of six in Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria.
Nineteen soldiers were killed in fighting with rebels, of whom four also died, the Observatory said, adding that 10 troops were gunned down as they tried to defect to anti-regime forces.
On Friday, at least 116 people were reported killed.
The International Committee of the Red Cross condemned the killing of a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer, in the fourth such incident in the country’s deadly unrest.
Bashar al-Youssef, 23, was shot and fatally wounded on Friday in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, the two organisations said in a joint statement.
“This comes at a time when the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are virtually the only organisations able to work in areas affected by the violence in Syria,” said Alexandre Equey, deputy head of the ICRC’s delegation in the country.
On the political front, Assad announced the formation of a new government with the key foreign, defence and interior ministry portfolios unchanged, less than two months after controversial parliamentary elections boycotted by the opposition.
“President Bashar al-Assad has issued Decree 210 forming a new government under Prime Minister Dr Riad Hijab,” state television said.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem remains in his post, along with the defence and interior ministers, Daoud Rajha and Mohammad al-Shaar.
Rajha, in the post since August, was among those sanctioned by the United States for his role in the deadly crackdown on Syrian protesters.
Abdel Basset Sayda, head of the main opposition Syrian National Council, dismissed the new line-up as a sham aiming “to give the impression that reforms have been brought in.”
He said there was “no real change,” with key posts unchanged.
The new cabinet assumes power amid an intensification of repression and clashes, which last week led to the the halt of the United Nations observer mission.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper, meanwhile, reported that Saudi Arabia was set to pay the salaries of the rebel Free Syrian Army, several of whose fighters who defected from the regular army are based in Turkey, to encourage mass defections.
Turkey-Syria relations were already strained by Erdogan’s outspoken condemnation of the Assad’s government’s bloody crackdown that rights activists say has killed more than 15,000 people since March 2011.
The downing of the F-4 is the most serious incident between the two countries since then, but Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc played down the tensions.
“We should be calm … Yes, we accept this is a critical matter but we don’t have clear information,” he told Anatolia news agency, adding that the results of the ongoing investigation would be publicised “as soon as possible.”
In neighbouring Iraq, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned that the Syrian crisis might spill over.
“Our main concern is the spillover of the crisis… into neighbouring countries, and no country is immune from this spillover because of the composition of the societies… the connections, the sectarian ethnic dimensions,” he told reporters.