Turkey on Thursday said cargo aboard a Syrian aircraft that was forced down over Turkey on a flight from Moscow to Damascus violated international rules about transporting munitions aboard civilian aircraft.
The government, however, offered no specifics of what was found aboard the plane, which was intercepted by Turkish F-16 fighter jets on Wednesday and forced to land at an airfield near Ankara, Turkey’s capital.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered only a vague explanation of the contents, saying that whatever was aboard the plane had come from a Russian agency that exports munitions and were bound to a similar “receiving firm in Syria.”
“You can guess and understand what kind of things these are,” Erdogan said. “And now these kinds of materials have been confiscated.”
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Russia protested the Turkish action, saying the interception of the civilian aircraft had put Russian lives in danger and complaining that Russian diplomats had been prevented from talking to the passengers during the five hours the plane was on the ground in Turkey.
The Russian government provided no details on what cargo might have been aboard the plane.
Syria also protested the seizure and demanded that Turkey return the cargo. “There were no weapons or any prohibited cargo on board,” the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The interception of the A320 Airbus comes amid growing tensions between Syria and Turkey, which is backing insurgents battling to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkish artillery has retaliated at least seven times in the past week for Syrian mortar shells that have landed on Turkey’s side of the border. Most of the mortar rounds have landed harmlessly, but one that struck a house in the Turkish border town of Akcakale killed five civilians, including three children. Syria accused Turkey of providing weapons and shelter to the insurgents.
Turkey ordered its national air carriers immediately to halt all flights over Syrian airspace until further notice. One flight that was about to fly over Syrian air space en route to Saudi Arabia was diverted to a Turkish civil airport until a new flight plan could be devised.
The incident was also likely to adversely affect Turkey’s relations with Russia, which has blocked several U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have placed an embargo on arms shipments to Syria.
Earlier Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin rescheduled a visit to Turkey that had been set to begin on Monday until early November. But Turkish government spokesman Selcuk Unal said this was done on mutual agreement in order to allow Putin to attend a ceremony opening a major joint project.
Turkish news media reported that there were 10 sealed containers on the plane that had not been on the manifest. The pro-government daily Yeni Safak in its Thursday editions said that they contained radio transmitters and missile parts. The Turkish government did not dispute the report but would not confirm it explicitly.
“The consignment was inconsistent with the regulations,” Unal told McClatchy. “Every country is entitled to ask that a plane using its airspace show if the consignment is correct. We want to be 100 percent confident that nothing has been passing through our airspace to Syria.”
“Every country is entitled to ask a plane using its air airspace to show if the consignment is correct,” Unal added. “It’s quite natural. You don’t need to show concrete information” to justify doing it.
The Yeni Safak newspaper reported that the Turkish military was acting on a tip from the CIA, which apparently spotted the equipment being loaded at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport. Unal said he could not comment on that report.
There were 37 passengers on the flight, including more than a dozen Russians. They were allowed to leave the plane to stand on the runway while it was in Turkey. Russia complained that the passengers had not been fed, but Turkish authorities said food had been taken to the plane.
Special corrspondent Joel Thomas contributed from Istanbul.