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 incident has sparked a diplomatic row pitting Turkey against Syria and also angering Syria’s powerful ally, Russia.
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 told reporters in Ankara. “It is against international rules for such things to pass through our air space.”
The incident has worsened already badly frayed relations between Turkey and neighboring Syria, which have become deeply divided over the ongoing Syrian civil conflict. 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.
Turkey denied that the passengers or crew were mistreated and said medical help was available to those on the plane if needed.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States “strongly support(s) the government of Turkey’s decision to inspect the plane.”
The airplane incident again highlights how relations have plummeted between Turkey and Syria, two nations that were once close allies.
Turkey has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, and it has provided aid to rebels fighting to oust him. Syria has accused Turkey of allowing “terrorists” to use its territory for attacks against Syria.