Middle East

Excerpts: Assad's interview with Turkish newspaper

Turkish F-4 Phantom jet (file)
Image caption Syria says the Turkish jet entered its airspace

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has said he regrets the shooting down of a Turkish fighter jet by his forces last week. Speaking to Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper, Mr Assad said the plane had entered Syrian airspace in an area that had previously been used by Israel.

Asked about the recent international agreement brokered by Kofi Annan on forming a transitional government, Assad said he was willing to step down if it was what Syrians wanted.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

"We are living at a time when the entire map of the region is being transformed. It resembles the breakup of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago. We know where the Arabs and the Turks stand with each other… We will not allow relations between the two countries to turn into a shooting war that will harm us both.

"The route being used by the Turkish plane was the same as one used by Israeli planes when they attempted to enter our airspace three years ago. Therefore, any plane coming from that direction is perceived by the Syrian military as an Israeli plane.

"If our militaries had still been talking to one another the Turkish side would have notified us and we would have reacted accordingly. The basic fact that the Turkish authorities need to explain is what was that plane doing in that area?

Image caption Turkish rescue teams have been unable to locate the downed jet or its pilots

"We do not even want to think that this plane was deliberately and purposefully sent into our airspace. We want to think that the pilot made a mistake, that it was not a recon mission.

"We had absolutely no idea about the identity of the plane when we were shooting it down."

Regret

"I would never wish this on any plane but an enemy one. And in the case of a Turkish plane I am saying 100%, 'If only this had not happened'. In this kind of climate when a plane approaches like this it is naturally considered hostile.. This was definitely not a political decision. But unfortunately, the Erdogan government is trying to capitalise on this. It has failed to gain public support for its Syria policy for 15 months now.

"Let me extend to the families (of the missing pilots) my deepest and most heartfelt condolences.

"Whatever the Erdogan government does, we have not and will not mass forces on Turkey's border. The Turkish people are our friends and they will understand us. It does not matter that the government of Turkey is an enemy to Syria. It only becomes a problem if Turkey's people start becoming hostile."

Transitional government?

"International and regional gossip does not interest me. Yes Assad, no Assad. We will never accept anything that is imposed from the outside.

"If saving my people and my country depends on my staying or leaving then why should I hang on? I would not stay even a day longer. But if the opposite were true; if the people do not want me then they have elections. If the people so choose they can send me packing."

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