After civilian plane grounded, Syrian minister bashes Turkey’s ‘air piracy’

Russia demands explanation from Ankara for holding Moscow-Damascus airliner on Wednesday

People gather atop the aircraft steps at a Syrian passenger plane that was forced by Turkish jets to land at Esenboga airport in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (photo credit: Burhan Ozbilici/AP)
People gather atop the aircraft steps at a Syrian passenger plane that was forced by Turkish jets to land at Esenboga airport in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (photo credit: Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

Syrian Transportation Minister Mahmoud Said on Thursday slammed Turkey’s “air piracy” after Ankara scrambled fighter jets to ground a civilian aircraft bound for Damascus it suspected of carrying weapons.

Syrian Arab Airlines Director Ghaida Abdulatif denied allegations that the plane carried weapons, and said the cargo was properly and legally registered according to Syria state news agency SANA. She called the incident “an inhumane act.”

Abdulatif also alleged that Turkish authorities “assaulted the plane’s crew before it was allowed to take off because the crew members refused to sign a document saying that the plane made an emergency landing.”

Turkish state-run TV on Thursday confirmed the plane, which originated in Moscow, was carrying military communications equipment.

Authorities grounded the plane Wednesday night after suspecting it of  shuttling “heavy weapons” to President Bashar Assad.

Yeni Safak, a newspaper close to the Turkish government, reported there were 10 containers aboard the plane, some containing radio receivers, antennas and “equipment thought to be missile parts.”

Neither TRT nor the newspaper cited sources for their reports, and Turkish officials have yet to provide details on what was aboard the Syrian Air A320 from Moscow that was forced to land in Ankara on Wednesday.

Turkish authorities reportedly confiscated the material before allowing the plane to continue its journey to Damascus.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday accused Turkey of endangering the lives of 17 of its citizens aboard the aircraft, and demanded an explanation from Ankara for Wednesday’s incident.

Turkey allegedly refused to allow Russian diplomatic staff access to the Russian passengers aboard the aircraft during the inspection, Russia Today quoted Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aleksandr Lukashevich saying.

Russia’s monopoly arms exporter on Thursday rejected Turkey’s claim that Russian arms were aboard the plane. “We had no cargo on that airplane. We always deliver our weapons in full compliance with international norms,” Rosoboronexport spokesperson Vyacheslav Davidenko said.

“Sending weapons on a passenger airplane breaks about every law there is on weapons exports,” Reuters quoted him saying.

Turkish F-16 fighter jets scrambled and intercepted the Airbus A-320 after it entered Turkish airspace. The Turkish Air Force forced the jet to land at Ankara’s Esenboğa airport.

The search of the Syrian aircraft’s cargo revealed no heavy weapons as earlier suspected, but yielded military communications devices and parts that could be used in missiles.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkey’s state-run TRT television in Athens the plane was forced to land because of information that it may be carrying “certain equipment in breach of civil aviation rules.” He added that it was Turkey’s right according to international law to search civilian aircraft suspected of bearing military materials.

Russia has supplied the Syrian military with the majority of its arms and ammunition for decades and has rejected UN Security Council attempts to levy sanctions against the Assad regime.

The Russian government currently has approximately $4 billion worth of arms contracts with Damascus. Russia’s arms sales to Syria over the past decade constitute 10 percent of Russia’s global arms exports, and Syria is currently Russia’s top customer in the Middle East, according to a 2012 report by the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade.

The move comes amid heightened tensions between Turkey and Syria, which have been engaged in fierce saber-rattling since exchanging artillery fire across the volatile border in the past week.

On Thursday, Turkey’s Energy Minister Taner Yildiz announced that Syria had stopped buying electricity from Turkish suppliers about a week ago.

“The door is open. If they request (electricity) again then we could resume providing it,” Yildiz told reporters, adding that it was Syria’s own decision.

Yildiz said Turkish companies supply around 2.3 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. The electricity amounted to some 18-20 percent of Syria’s needs, he said.

He did not say why Syria had halted purchases, saying only “it was an agreement between Syria and the companies.”

On Wednesday, Turkey’s military chief vowed to respond with more force to any further shelling from Syria, keeping up the pressure on its southern neighbor a day after NATO said it stood ready to defend Turkey.

Gen. Necdet Ozel was inspecting troops who have been put on alert along the 910-kilometer (566-mile) border with Syria after a week of cross-border artillery and mortar exchanges escalated tensions between the neighbors, sparking fears of a wider regional conflict.

Turkey has reinforced the border with artillery guns and also deployed more fighter jets to an air base close to the border region since shelling from Syria killed five Turkish civilians last week.

“We responded and if (the shelling) continues, we will respond with more force,” the private Dogan news agency quoted Ozel as saying during a visit to the town of Akcakale.

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