BEIRUT — Russia demanded an explanation from Turkey on Thursday for why it intercepted a Syrian passenger plane flying from Moscow to Damascus, the latest instance of spiraling Syrian-Turkish tensions related to Syria’s bloody civil war.
Turkey said it used F-16 fighter jets to force the Syrian Airbus to land at Esenboga Airport in Ankara in order to seize equipment that it believes was destined for use by the Syrian military against the armed, anti-government rebels. Thirty passengers were on board the plane, including 17 Russians.
The plane contained “equipment and ammunition that were being sent from a Russian agency … to the Syrian Defense Ministry,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan later told reporters in Ankara, the Associated Press reported. Erdogan said Turkish authorities were examining the equipment and that necessary steps “will follow.”
He described the cargo as “ munitions from the Russian equivalent of our Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation,” a reference to a state-run Turkish manufacturer that supplies the country’s army, Reuters news agency reported.
After several hours on the ground, the plane was allowed to fly to Damascus without the cargo, AP said.
In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement: “Russia insists that the Turkish authorities must explain their conduct regarding Russian citizens and prevent similar incidents in the future.”
Turkey’s action against the plane amounted to “air piracy,” Syrian Transport Minister Mahmoud Said told state-controlled television news, according to Reuters news agency. His comments exacerbated the already tense back-and-forth between Turkey and Syria following a Syrian mortar strike that killed five civilians in a Turkish border village last week.
The Airbus 320 was intercepted as it entered Turkish airspace shortly after 5 p.m. local time Wednesday (10 a.m. in Washington). Hours earlier, Turkey had ordered all Turkish civilian aircraft to cease flights through Syrian airspace, apparently to prevent Syria from taking reciprocal action.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkish television network TGRT that the plane had been forced down because it was carrying “non-civilian cargo” and “banned material.”
“There is information that the plane had cargo on board that does not meet the requirements of civil aviation,” Davutoglu said. The Today’s Zaman newspaper later reported that Turkish authorities found military communication equipment and “parts that could be used in missiles” on the plane.
Russia denied that any military hardware or weapons were on board.
In Brussels, meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters the United States has dispatched a small force of 150 troops to Jordan, to help the authorities there formulate contingency plans for dealing with the ongoing violence in neighboring Syria.
Russia demands explanation
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Turkey never informed the Russian Embassy that some passengers aboard the seized plane were Russian citizens. After watching news reports about the incident, the embassy sent consulate workers and a doctor to the airport and demanded access to the Russians, Lukashevich said.
“Turkish authorities denied without explanations and in violation of the bilateral consular convention a meeting of the diplomats with the Russian citizens, who had been barred from the airport terminal for eight hours but sporadically allowed to stand on the tarmac,” Lukashevich said.“No food was supplied either.”
The Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed official with a “Russian weapons export organization” as saying that there were no weapons or military hardware on board the plane. The official pointed out that Russia has not suspended military-technological cooperation with Syria and therefore could send weapons to Damascus through official channels, rather than trying to smuggle such material on a civilian plane.
“If it had been necessary to ship any military hardware or weapons to Syria, this would have been done through the established procedure rather than in an illegal way, not to mention using a civilian aircraft,” the official said, according to Interfax.
Russia, one of Syria’s staunchest allies, has in the past acknowledged supplying the government in Damascus with weapons and has blocked several efforts at the United Nations to impose an arms embargo.
Ankara and Damascus, long at odds over the bloody revolution in Syria, lurched closer to war a week ago after several Syrian shells exploded in a Turkish border village, killing five civilians and prompting Turkey to retaliate with barrages of mortar fire against Syrian targets.
Syria refused to apologize and instead denounced Turkey for allowing rebels battling the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad to transport weapons and funds across its border. Although mortar rounds fired during battles had strayed into Turkey on several previous occasions, Turkish officials said the incident last week was different because five shells struck a residential area almost simultaneously.
Over the next five days, at least five more Syrian shells exploded in Turkey, increasing suspicions that Syria was deliberately needling its neighbor in an effort to undermine the Turkish prime minister. Turkey reciprocated by firing mortar shells into Syria on each occasion, and it has reinforced its southern border with extra troops, artillery and fighter planes.
Earlier Wednesday, Turkey’s top general warned of harsher retaliation if more Syrian mortar shells land in Turkish territory.
“We responded, but if it continues, we will respond with greater force,” Chief of General Staff Necdet Ozel told Turkish media during a visit to the southern town of Akcakale, where the five civilians were killed.
The dispatch of the U.S. troops to Jordan, reported by the New York Times on Wednesday, marks the first American military deployment directly associated with the nearly 19-month-old Syria crisis, which has swamped neighboring states with refugees and risks igniting a regional conflict. The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, said 173 people were killed in Syria on Wednesday.
Most of the 150 U.S. troops are Army special operations forces, and some have been in Jordan for several months, Panetta said. They are helping Jordan monitor Syrian chemical and biological weapons sites and develop its own military capabilities “so that we can deal with all of the possible consequences” of the Syria war, he said.
LIZ SLY – THE WASHINGTON POST