ANKARA  - Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad said Tuesday he regretted that his country’s defence forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet on June 22, but still insisted the plane was in Syrian airspace, meanwhile the troops pounded several rebel-held districts in the central city of Homs, as the death toll mounted across the country, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“I would have wished 100 percent that we had not attacked it,” he said two weeks after the F-4 Phantom jet on a training mission was shot at and crashed into the Mediterranean off Syria. “The plane was flying in an air corridor used three times in the past by the Israeli airforce,” Assad said as an explanation of his military’s action in an interview with a Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet.

“A country at war always acts like this, this plane was flying at a very low altitude and was shot down by anti-aircraft defences which mistook it for an Israeli plane, which attacked Syria in 2007,” Assad said, rejecting Turkey’s accusations that the Syrians intentionally targeted the jet. He said the soldier who shot down the plane had no radar and could not know to which country the plane belonged. Assad sent his condolences to the families of the two pilots of the downed plane, who have not been found. “If this plane had been shot down in international airspace (as maintained by Ankara) we would not have hesitated to apologise,” he added.

The Syrian leader expressed the desire to turn the page on the incident which has fuelled tensions between the two former allies. “We do not want to even consider that this plane was sent deliberately into our airspace,” Assad said. “We want to think of it as a pilot’s error and we would consider this an isolated incident, which shouldn’t be exaggerated ... We have nothing to gain in attacking a Turkish fighter jet.”

In total, at least 48 people were killed on Tuesday, bringing to more than 120 the death toll over two days, the Britain-based watchdog reported.

Two civilians and three rebels were killed in Homs, as clashes raged in and around the neighbourhood of Baba Amr, a former rebel stronghold that the army seized on March 1 after a fierce 27-day assault. Rebels and troops also battled for the district of Khaldiyeh, the monitoring group said. Khaldiyeh is one of several rebel-held districts of Homs that have been besieged by the army for almost a month.

Dozens of Syrian soldiers including top officers defected to neighbouring Turkey, the Anatolia news agency reported. The 85 soldiers who fled include one general and other senior officials, the agency said, citing local officials. The latest defections bring to 14 the number of Syrian generals to have crossed into Turkey, abandoning the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. The latest group of soldiers crossed into Turkey at Reyhanli, in the south of the country. They were part of a group of 293 people including many women and children. Turkey is already sheltering more than 35,000 Syria refugees including many deserters from the country’s military, which has been carrying out a crackdown on opposition protesters that has been condemned by Western powers. Tension between the two countries has increased since Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet last month.

Syria has insisted the aircraft was in its territory when they shot it down, which Turkey has fiercely disputed. The two pilots have not been found.

On Sunday, Turkey scrambled fighter jets after Syrian helicopters flew close to the border.