Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said a Syrian passenger plane forced to land in Ankara was carrying Russian-made munitions destined for Syria’s defence ministry, ratcheting up tensions with Turkey’s war-torn neighbour.
Damascus said the plane was carrying legitimate cargo and described Turkey’s actions as an act of “air piracy”, while Moscow accused the Turks of endangering the lives of Russian passengers by intercepting the jet on Wednesday.
The grounding of the plane was another sign of Turkey’s growing assertiveness over the crisis after Turkish chief of staff Necdet Ozel warned on Wednesday his forces would escalate their response if Syrian shells continued to hit Turkey.
“This was munitions from the Russian equivalent of our Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation being sent to the Syrian defence ministry,” Mr Erdogan told a news conference in Ankara last night, referring to a state-run Turkish manufacturer that supplies the country’s army.
Yeni Safak, a newspaper close to the Turkish government, reported there were ten containers on the plane, whose contents included radio receivers, antennas and equipment “thought to be missile parts”.
Russia’s foreign ministry declined immediate comment but its arms export agency said earlier it had no cargo on the flight, while the Interfax news agency quoted Yelena Kara-Sal, a Russian consular official, as saying the cargo seized was not of Russian origin.
Syrian air chief Ghaida Abdulatif told reporters in Damascus the plane was carrying civilian electrical equipment.
Turkey has become one of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s harshest critics during an 18-month uprising that has killed some 30,000 people, providing sanctuary for rebels and pushing for a foreign-protected safe haven inside Syria.
Russia backs Mr Assad and an arms industry source said Moscow had not stopped its arms exports to Damascus.
Military jets escorted the Airbus A-320, which was carrying around 30 passengers, into Ankara airport after Turkey received an intelligence tip-off. The Turkish foreign ministry said the plane had been given a chance to turn back to Russia while still over the Black Sea, but the pilot chose not to.
“This hostile and deplorable Turkish act is an additional indication of the hostile policy of Erdogan’s government,” Syria’s foreign ministry said, accusing Turkey of “harbouring terrorists” and allowing them to infiltrate Syria.
Turkey said it would stop more Syrian civilian aircraft using its airspace if necessary and instructed Turkish passenger planes to avoid Syrian airspace as no longer safe.
“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.
Turkey has boosted its troop presence along the 560-mile border and returned fire over the past week in response to shelling from northern Syria, where Mr Assad’s forces have been battling rebels around Aleppo.
“Turkey has crossed a new threshold,” said former Turkish diplomat Sinan Ulgen, chair 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.”