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Turkey Mourns 2 Pilots Downed by Syria

  • Dorian Jones

Turkish soldiers carry the coffins of fallen Turkish pilots, Captain Gokhan Ertan and Lieutenant Hasan Huseyin Aksoy, during an official farewell ceremony at the 7th Jet Main Air Base in the eastern Turkish city of Malatya July 6, 2012.
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The two Turkish pilots of the warplane that was shot down last month by Syrian forces were buried Friday with full military honors and Turkey's political leaders present.

The coffins of the two pilots were draped in Turkish flags and carried by soldiers in a funeral ceremony with full military honors.

The ceremony was held at the Erhac airbase in eastern Turkey, where the pilots' warplane left on its ill fated operation.

The bodies were recovered from the bottom of the Mediterranean with the assistance of a U.S. search vessel.

Attending the funeral were Turkey's political and military leadership led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Addressing the ceremony, Turkish air force General Mustafa Avci reiterated the country's anger over the circumstances of the shooting down of the plane.

He said the two pilots were killed in international waters of the Mediterranean while performing an unarmed mission. And that the two pilots were heroes and offered his condolences to the families.

Damascus says the jet was shot down close to its coast over its territorial waters. Both sides dispute how the plane was downed with Ankara claiming it was hit by a missile while Damascus insists it was anti-aircraft fire.

With the wreckage of the plane now found, analysts say many questions about the shooting may now be answered. In an interview published Monday in a Turkish newspaper, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he regretted the incident, but did not apologize.

The downing of the plane has seen a heightening of tensions between the two neighbors. Mr. Erdogan has accused Syria of a presenting a clear and present danger and has increased the numbers of military forces on the 900 kilometer Syrian border. Ankara is also providing sanctuary to over 30,000 Syrian refugees, including the leadership and members of the Free Syrian Army which is fighting Assad's forces.

On Thursday Brigadier General Manaf Tlass of Syria's elite Republican guard reportedly fled to Turkey. Despite the deaths of the two pilots, opinion polls found the overwhelming majority of Turks oppose any military confrontation with Syria.