By Roy Gutman, McClatchy Newspapers –
ISTANBUL — 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.”
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.