ISTANBUL – Moscow accused Ankara of endangering Russian lives today after Turkey forced a Syrian passenger plane to land and seized what it suspected was military equipment being ferried from Russia to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Damascus said the interception of the Syrian Air plane was an act of piracy, further heightening tensions between the neighbours after Turkey’s chief of staff warned his troops would respond with greater force if shells from Syria continued to hit Turkish territory.
Military jets escorted the Damascus-bound Airbus A-320, which was carrying around 30 passengers from Moscow, into Ankara airport late yesterday after Turkey received intelligence that it was carrying “non-civilian cargo”.
Russia, which has stood behind Assad’s government during an 18-month-old uprising that has killed some 30,000 people, angrily demanded an explanation.
“The lives and safety of the passengers were placed under threat”, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that 17 of its nationals on board were refused access to Russian diplomatic staff.
A source in a Russian arms exporting agency told Interfax the jet was carrying no Russian weapons or military equipment.
Lebanon’s al-Manar Television quoted Syrian Transport Minister Mahmoud Said as saying the move amounted to “air piracy which contradicts civil aviation treaties.”
Turkey said it had acted within international law.
“We are determined to control weapons transfers to a regime that carries out such brutal massacres against civilians. It is unacceptable that such a transfer is made using our airspace,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
“We received information this plane was carrying cargo of a nature that could not possibly be in compliance with the rules of civil aviation,” he said in Athens during an official visit, in comments broadcast live on Turkish television.
The plane and its passengers were allowed to continue after parts of the cargo were seized. Officials gave no details of what was confiscated, saying investigations were underway, but some Turkish newspapers said the cargo included non-lethal supplies such as radio equipment.
Turkey said it would continue to investigate Syrian civilian aircraft using its airspace if needed.
“We exercised our rights, and we will exercise them again tomorrow if required,” Turkish Transport Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters. (Reuters)