By FRANK JORDANS and SUZAN FRASER Associated Press
The Salem News
---- — ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A plane intercepted by Turkish fighter jets on its way from Moscow to Damascus was carrying equipment and ammunition destined for the Syrian Defense Ministry, Turkey’s prime minister said yesterday.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments follow a fierce denial by Syria that anything illegal had been aboard the Airbus A320 that was forced by Turkey to land in Ankara late Wednesday. Syria, whose relations with neighboring Turkey have plummeted over the Syrian war, branded it an act of piracy.
Earlier in the day, Turkish officials had rejected claims by Syria’s ally, Russia, that Turkey had endangered the lives of Russian citizens on board the aircraft.
“These were equipment and ammunitions that were being sent from a Russian agency ... to the Syrian Defense Ministry,” Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.
“Their examination is continuing and the necessary (action) will follow,” he added.
Yeni Safak, a newspaper close to the Turkish government, reported yesterday that there were 10 containers aboard the plane, whose contents included radio receivers, antennas and equipment “thought to be missile parts.”
Turkish state-run television TRT also reported the plane was carrying military communications equipment. Neither TRT nor the newspaper cited sources for their claims.
A Western diplomat in Ankara told The Associated Press that Turkish authorities had found “military equipment” on board the plane, but did not elaborate. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about sensitive issues.
The plane was allowed to continue to Damascus after several hours, without the cargo.
“As you know, defense industry equipment or weapons, ammunitions and such equipment cannot be carried on passenger planes,” Erdogan said. “It is against international rules for such things to pass through our air space.”
Erdogan refused to say how — or from whom — Turkey had learned that the twice-weekly scheduled flight would be used to transport military gear to Syria.
“As you will appreciate, those who gave the tip, which establishments, these things cannot be disclosed,” he said.
The United States said it backed Turkey’s decision to intercept the plane.
“Any transfer of any military equipment to the Syrian regime at this time is very concerning, and we look forward to hearing more from the Turkish side when they get to the bottom of what they found,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
She declined to comment on Turkish reports that the intelligence on the plane’s cargo had come from the United States.
Turkey has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and Damascus accusing Turkey of supporting the rebels. The two neighbors have traded artillery fire over Syria’s northern border throughout the past week.
Hours before the Turkish statement, Russian Ambassador Vladimir Ivanovsky had held talks with Turkish officials at the Foreign Ministry.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich had said earlier Thursday that Moscow was concerned that lives and safety of the 35 passengers, including 17 Russian citizens, had been endangered.
He said Turkey without explanation denied Russian consular officials and a doctor access to the passengers, who had not been allowed into the airport for eight hours or provided with food.
“The Russian side continues to insist on an explanation for the Turkish authorities’ actions toward Russian citizens and on the adoption of measures to avoid such incidents in the future,” Lukashevich said in a statement.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the pilot of the Syrian Air plane from Moscow had been warned of Turkey’s intention to ground it as he approached from the Black Sea on Wednesday evening. It said he was given the chance to turn back, but that he decided to continue his course.
Rejecting claims that passengers were ill-treated, the Turkish statement said they were allowed to leave the plane if they wanted and that there was a medical crew and ambulances on standby. It also said that the pilot did not provide a passenger list and therefore Turkish officials did not know there were Russians on board until after it landed.