Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday the cargo seized on a Syrian plane intercepted on its way from Moscow to Damascus carried military equipment and ammunition for the Syrian regime.
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.
Erdogan said the cargo was “equipment and ammunition shipped to the Syrian Defense Ministry” from a Russian military supplier, in remarks televised by NTV news channel, according to AFP.
Syria accused Erdogan of “lying” in a quick response to his statements.
“The Turkish prime minister continues to lie in order to justify his government’s hostile attitude towards Syria,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“The plane’s cargo was documented in detail on the bill of loading and the plane did not carry any illegal material or any weapons,” it said.
Erdogan did not name the Russian supplier, but said it was the Russian counterpart of Turkey’s Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation, which is the Turkish army’s main provider of military equipment.
He also declined to comment on the source of the intelligence Ankara received on Wednesday, after which two Turkish F-16 fighters forced the Syrian passenger plane to make an emergency landing in Ankara.
The confiscated material is still being studied by relevant departments, according to Erdogan, who noted that a meticulous procedure was applied in the process.
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.
Ankara’s grounding of the Syrian plane carrying 35 passengers, 17 of them Russian nationals, for nine hours before finally allowing it to resume its journey has drawn intense criticism from Damascus and its main ally Moscow.
Damascus accused Ankara of hostility and demanded the return of the seized cargo, while Moscow denied it contained arms of any kind.
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.
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.
Separately, the Foreign Ministry said it had submitted a formal protest note to Syria for the violation of civil aviation rules and declared Syrian air space unsafe for Turkish planes.
Syrian Transportation Minister Mohammed Ibrahim Said said Turkey's decision to force the plane to land amounted to piracy.
The general manager of the Syrian Civil Aviation Agency also blasted Turkey’s forced landing of the plane, calling it “contrary to regulations and aviation norms.”
Ghaidaa Abdul-Latif told reporters in Damascus that the plane’s pilots were not asked to land but were instead surprised by Turkish F-16 fighter jets, which forced them to land.
A Syrian Airlines engineer who was aboard, Haithan Kasser, said armed Turkish officials boarded the plane and handcuffed the crew before inspecting packages that he said contained electrical equipment.
Abdul-Latif said the officials seized some packages after presenting official documents.
Turkey’s Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim said on Thursday that the cargo “was not suitable for a civil plane.”