Plane carried Russian arms says Tukey PM
Istanbul, October 11, 2012
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday a Syrian passenger plane forced to land in Ankara was carrying Russian-made munitions destined for Syria's defence ministry.
Turkish authorities ordered the Syrian Air passenger plane, which was travelling from Moscow to Damascus, to land late on Wednesday after receiving an intelligence tip-off and seized some of its cargo.
Earlier, Moscow accused Ankara of endangering Russian lives after the plane was ordered to land and Turkey officials seized what they suspected was military equipment being ferried from Russia to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Damascus said intercepting the Syrian Air plane was an act of piracy, further heightening tensions between the neighbours after Turkey's chief of staff warned Ankara would use greater force if shells from Syria continued to hit Turkish territory.
The grounding of the plane was another sign of Ankara's growing assertiveness over the crisis in Syria following almost a week of retaliation by its armed forces to gunfire and shelling spilling across the border.
"Turkey has crossed a new threshold," said former Turkish diplomat Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies think-tank.
"With the action they took last week the government is in the slightly more comfortable position of having shown it has the strength to retaliate."
Military jets escorted the Damascus-bound Airbus A-320, which was carrying around 30 passengers from Moscow, into Ankara airport late on Wednesday after Turkey received intelligence that it was carrying "non-civilian cargo".
The Turkish foreign ministry said the plane had been given a chance to turn back towards Russia while still over the Black Sea, but the pilot chose not to do so.
Syria's Foreign Ministry said the plane was carrying legitimate cargo and the sudden appearance of military aircraft had threatened its safety.
"This hostile and deplorable Turkish act is an additional indication of the hostile policy of (Prime Minister Tayyip) Erdogan's government, considering that it trains and harbours terrorists and helps them infiltrate into and bombard Syrian territory," it said.
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, saying passengers including 17 of its nationals had been placed in danger.
Turkey said a medical team was on standby for the passengers and there was never any threat to their safety.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had been expected to visit Turkey at the start of next week but Turkish officials said hours before the plane was grounded that Russia had requested the visit be postponed, citing his heavy work schedule. - Reuters