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Turkey says Syria-bound jet had munitions

Neighbors' rift grows as Damascus denies the passenger plane en route from Russia was ferrying weapons.

October 12, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • The Syrian passenger jet that was forced to land in Ankara, Turkey, where authorities seized cargo.
The Syrian passenger jet that was forced to land in Ankara, Turkey, where… (Burhan Ozbilici / Associated…)

ANTAKYA, Turkey — A Syrian passenger jet forced to land in Turkey while on a scheduled flight from Moscow to Damascus was carrying ammunition and other items destined for the Syrian Defense Ministry, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday.

The assertion was in line with Turkish allegations that the Syrian Arab Airlines craft — with a reported 37 passengers and crew members on board — was ferrying "inappropriate" material to Damascus, prompting Turkish F-16 fighter jets to force it to land Wednesday at Ankara's Esenboga International Airport.

The incident has sparked a diplomatic row pitting Turkey against Syria and also angering Syria's powerful ally, Russia.

The intercepted aircraft remained in Ankara for several hours and then was allowed to resume its flight to Damascus, arriving there early Thursday. Turkish authorities removed some cargo from the plane for further inspection.

"As you know, defense industry equipment or weapons, ammunitions and such equipment cannot be carried on passenger planes," Erdogan told reporters in Ankara, the Associated Press reported. "It is against international rules for such things to pass through our airspace."

The incident has worsened already badly frayed relations between Turkey and its neighbor, which are deeply at odds over the Syrian civil conflict. During the last week, the two nations have traded cross-border artillery volleys, and Turkey has rushed reinforcements to sections of its 500-mile-plus frontier with Syria.

Syria has denied that any weapons were on board the aircraft and charged that Turkish authorities "assaulted" the Syrian crew once the plane was on the ground in Ankara. A Syrian official in Damascus likened the incident to piracy.

In a statement, the Syrian Foreign Ministry denounced the "hostile behavior of the Turkish government." Syria demanded that Turkey return the seized cargo.

A Russian official, meanwhile, voiced outrage that the abrupt action may have endangered the lives of Russian citizens and others on board. Russia also complained that consular officials and physicians were not given access to the passengers once the aircraft arrived in Ankara.

"We are concerned that the life and security of the passengers, including 17 Russian nationals, were endangered," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.

Turkey denied that the passengers or crew members were mistreated and said medical help was available to those on the plane.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States "strongly support[s] the government of Turkey's decision to inspect the plane."

Nuland said Washington was "concerned by any effort to supply military equipment" to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The jet incident again highlights how relations have plummeted between Turkey and Syria, two nations that were once close allies.

Turkey has called for Assad to step down, and it has provided aid to rebels fighting to oust him. Syria has accused Turkey of allowing "terrorists" to use its territory for attacks against Syria.

Russia is a staunch ally of Assad and has blocked efforts at the United Nations to impose sanctions or penalties against his government.

Syria's large military is mostly armed with Russian weapons, but Moscow says most of those deliveries occurred years ago.

Russia has generally denied providing arms to Syria during the period of the rebellion, though Russian officials say some contracts that predated the uprising were being honored.

Russia insists any that any materiel deliveries to Syria comply with international law.

A U.S.-Russian diplomatic tiff arose this year when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Russia of delivering attack helicopters to Syria, which has used helicopters against the armed opposition.

Russia denied providing helicopters to the Syrian government. But later reports indicated that Moscow was returning to Syria several helicopters that had been repaired in Russia. However, the ship carrying the repaired aircraft to Syria was forced to return to port in June when the vessel's British insurers withdrew their coverage.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow and a Times staff writer in Beirut contributed to this report.

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