Turkish F-16 fighter jets forced a Syrian airline passenger plane to land in Ankara over suspicions it was carrying "non-civilian" cargo. The Damascus-bound plane, which had departed from Moscow, has departed after a nine-hour inspection.
Ankara has granted the Syrian plane a departure clearance, after Turkish security confiscated its suspicious cargo, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a local broadcaster.
“Just because of the clear evidence that we received, we negotiated with our prime minister and decided to let the plane fly on to Syria with the passengers, but we are going to hold on to the material because of the ongoing investigation and the next steps,” he said. “Our investigation is continuing. Since there might be materials that were supposed to be declared but have not been, we are holding this material in our hands to continue to inspect.”
Earlier, Davutoglu said that Ankara had received intelligence that the Syrian plane was carrying "certain equipment in breach of civil aviation rules," but refused to comment on the presumed content.
The Turkish authorities were interested in some spare parts, which a businessman bought in Russia and was transporting to Syria, passenger Fatima Al-Saman told RT. She said they were clearly not weapons.
“They started unloading some packages. They opened them, took pictures. There were many people. We all saw what was in there. There were no weapons. You could see it with an unaided eye!” she said.
Al-Saman added the search involved only luggage, and the passengers were mainly ignored by the Turks. Russian diplomats arrived at the airport but were reportedly not allowed to meet with the passengers.
Earlier, Turkish media speculated that the plane had been diverted on suspicions that it was transporting heavy weaponry. Later reports suggested that Turkey seized military communications equipment and missile components. However, so far there has been no official confirmation of the contents of the cargo.
The plane was forced to land in Ankara’s international airport at 5:15 pm local time (3:15 pm GMT). The Airbus A-320 was carrying around 30 passengers.
The Airbus, which belongs to Syrian Air, was intercepted on its way from Moscow by F16 jets and forced to land at the capital's Esenboga Airport as it entered Turkish airspace.
Turkey is determined to stop any transfer of weapons to Syrian administration through its airspace, Davutoglu said Wednesday. The FM added that Turkey has every right under the international law to investigate any civilian plane suspected to be carrying military materials.
Meanwhile, Ankara has banned Turkish passenger flights from entering Syrian airspace.
"All civilian flights in Syrian airspace have been stopped since it is no longer safe," the ministry added in their Wednesday statement. A Turkish plane that had already taken off for Saudi Arabia made a detour and landed at the Adana airport, reports Today's Zaman newspaper.17 Russians, including kids, onboard – Russia’s Foreign Ministry said diplomats are already heading to the airport and sent an information request to the Turkish Foreign Ministry. “The preliminary information is that out of 35 passengers, there may be 17 Russians on board, children among them,” Maria Zakharova, the chief of the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, exclusively told RT.
Tensions between Turkey and Syria have escalated since a Syrian shell killed five civilians in the border town of Akcakale last week. Western powers have repeatedly accused various countries of smuggling weapons into Syria and breaching an arms embargo imposed on Damascus by the EU.
On Wednesday, Iraq publicly denied allegations of providing its territory for use in the transport of arms from Iran to Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Baghdad is performing random checks of aircraft from Iran to Syria and nothing has been found so far.
In March, the US and the UK lashed out at Iran, saying the country was supplying weapons to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Damascus and Tehran immediately denied the allegations.
Russia has also been a suspect in the case. In June, a Russian cargo ship transporting three MI-25 helicopters, sailing from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad to Syria, was stopped off the coast of Scotland and forced to turn back after the vessel's insurer revoked its coverage.
Western media were quick to speculate about arms supplies from Russia to Syria, but Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explained that the helicopters had been repaired by Russia for Syria under a 2008 agreement.
The Syrian rebels, on the other hand, are known to use financial backing from supporters including Saudi Arabia and Qatar to buy weapons on the black market. The rebels' supporters are also suspected of supplying weapons to them directly. This week, a BBC report showed footage of a crate with a label marking it as products manufactured by a Ukrainian firm and shipped to the Saudi military.
The US said it supports Syrian rebel forces with materiel including communication equipment, but stopped short of delivering arms due to the fear that they would end up in the hands of forces linked to al-Qaeda.
Turkey itself hosts a number of refugee camps for Syrians. Some media reports say the camps are used by the rebels for recruiting, receiving medical help and getting rest before going back into Syria to fight government forces.
There are also reports that Turkish officers lend their tactical skills to Syria's armed opposition. The rebels have too few trained officers among their ranks, and lack a proper military structure to fight on par with a regular army. Turkish generals are allegedly trying to close the gap, providing their clients with intelligence, communications and combat plans.
Turkey, once an ally of Syria, is now a vocal critic of the Assad government, while Damascus in not pulling any punches in condemning Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict. In June the confrontation resulted in the deaths of two Turkish pilots. Their reconnaissance jet strayed into Syrian airspace and was shot down by air defense forces. The incident provoked a major scandal, with Turkey threatening to invoke its NATO membership and request that the alliance defend it.
Turkish artilleries have been busy recently shelling Syrian territory in response to daily mortar shots fired from across the border. Damascus offered its regrets after the second such incident, which killed four Turkish civilians. However, some Turkish opposition media reports blamed the mortar shots on the rebel forces, which ironically received the weapons from Turkey. Some observers say the continuing crossfire may be a rebel attempt to provoke a shooting war between Turkey and Syria.
In: Other Middle East
Tags: turkey, f16, intercepts, syrian, civilian, flight, suspects, suspicious, cargo
Location: Ankara, Ankara, Turkey (load item map)
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