ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Dozens of members of Syria's military defected to Turkey overnight with their families, a Turkish official said Monday, at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries over Syria's downing of a Turkish military plane.
The state-run Anadolu news agency said 33 soldiers crossed into Turkey overnight and the group — 224 people in all — included a general and two colonels.
A government official, however, said the group included three colonels and there was no general among them. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules, did not know the overall number of defectors and the two accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
Turkey's Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz, meanwhile, signaled that his government is to cut electricity supplies to the conflict-torn country, where escalating violence has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Turkish companies provide Syria with on average 2 billion kilowatt/hour of electricity per year — around 10 percent of Syria's annual power consumption. Yildiz said a decision on the issue could be announced Tuesday by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is expected to address his party legislators in parliament and reveal what retaliatory measures Turkey will take against Damascus for downing down the plane.
The defections come three days after Syria shot down the aircraft, further fraying relations between the two countries that were once allies.
NATO-member Turkey said the plane had unintentionally strayed into Syria's air space, but was inside international airspace when it was brought down. It has insisted the jet was on a training flight to test Turkey's radar capabilities and was not spying on Syria.
Turkey has summoned a NATO meeting Tuesday to discuss the incident, revoking article 4 of NATO's founding treaty which allows an ally to request consultations whenever it feels its security is threatened.
Anadolu said the group of defectors was placed in a refugee camp in Hatay, a province bordering Syria but there was no further information. Turkey is hosting some 33,000 Syrians who have crossed into Turkey to find refuge from the 15-months old violence.
Thousands of soldiers have abandoned the Syrian regime, but most are low-level conscripts. The Free Syria Army — the loosely linked group of rebel forces — is made up largely of defectors.
Defectors affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and based in Turkey are known to collect food and other supplies to deliver to comrades on smuggling routes.
The government official said another group of some 60 army defectors had also crossed into Turkey recently.