The accusation further inflamed Turkey's difficult relationship with Syria, where an uprising against President Bashar Assad has expanded into a civil war that is threatening the stability of the Middle East.
ANTAKYA, Turkey — A Syrian passenger airliner forced to land in Turkey while it was 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 aircraft — 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 Esenbogan Airport.
The accusation further inflamed Turkey’s already difficult relationship with Syria, where a 19-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad has expanded into a civil war that is threatening the stability of the Middle East. The incident also angered Syria’s powerful ally, Russia.
Erdogan’s accusation, reported by Turkey’s semiofficial Anatolian News Agency, came only hours after the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the Turks of illegally searching the plane and demanded an explanation. A leading Russian arms-export company denied that military equipment from Russia could have been aboard.
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The intercepted aircraft remained in Ankara for several hours before it 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 said in Ankara, The Associated Press reported. “It is against international rules for such things to pass through our air space.”
Erdogan also said that an upcoming visit to Turkey by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, had been postponed. He said the postponement had no connection with the forced grounding of the plane.
Russia is a staunch ally of Syria’s 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.
The plane incident has worsened already frayed relations between Turkey and Syria. 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 Turkey.
Syria has denied 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, according to the AP.
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 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 Thursday.
Turkey denied the passengers or crew were mistreated and said medical help was available if needed.
Information from The New York Times
is included in this report.