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Turkish jet downs Syrian warplane near border

| Sunday, March 23, 2014, 7:51 p.m.

ISTANBUL — Turkish fighter jets shot down a Syrian warplane on Sunday because it violated the country's airspace, Turkey's prime minister said, in a move likely to ramp up tensions between two countries deeply at odds over Syria's civil war.

A spokesman for Syria's military confirmed the incident, denouncing it as a “blatant aggression.” The unnamed spokesman quoted on Syrian state TV said the plane was hit while pursuing gunmen near the border and that the pilot safely ejected from the aircraft.

Turkey, a NATO member that once enjoyed good ties with Syria, has emerged as one of the strongest critics of Syrian President Bashar Assad and is one of the main backers of the three-year-old rebellion against him.

Despite protestations from Syria, there was little indication either side wanted the confrontation to escalate.

Syrian rebels began an offensive in the Kassab area of Latakia near the Turkish border on Friday. The rugged hills near the frontier have been engulfed in heavy fighting since then.

Activists and state media reported clashes near the town and said both sides dispatched reinforcements. Syrian officials said the opposition fighters were coming from inside Turkey.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes between troops and rebels led by fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front near Kassab and a strategic hill known as “Observatory 45.”

State TV reported that Hilal Assad, the commander of the pro-government National Defense Forces, was killed in the fighting against opposition fighters in Kassab.

The commander was a member of Assad's family, but the station did not say whether they were close relatives.

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