ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey defended its decision to force a Syrian passenger plane to land, saying Thursday the aircraft was carrying illicit cargo from Russia that Turkish media said included military communications gear and missile parts.
Syria branded the incident piracy and said there was nothing illegal on board. Syria's ally Russia also criticized Turkey, saying Ankara had endangered the lives of Russian citizens on board the aircraft.
In a statement Thursday, the Foreign Ministry in Ankara said the pilot of the Syrian Air Airbus A320, on a scheduled flight 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.
Turkish-Syrian relations have plummeted over the conflict in Syria, with Turkey calling for 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.
Turkish officials have yet to provide details about what they confiscated. But Yeni Safak, a newspaper close to the Turkish government, reported Thursday 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.
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 health 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.
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.
Syrian Transportation Minister Mohammad 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. She said Syria would file a complaint with international aviation authorities.
Turkey's Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim said on Thursday that the cargo "was not suitable for a civil plane."
The Moscow airport that cleared the Syrian plane for takeoff denied there was any forbidden cargo on board.
"No objects whose transportation would have been forbidden under aviation regulations were on board," said Vnukovo Airport spokeswoman Yelena Krylova, ITAR-Tass reported
Krylova said all documentation related to the cargo was in order. She would not say who had sent the cargo.
A Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman also denied that the plane carried any arms or prohibited goods and called on Turkey to return the plane's full contents.
Also on Thursday, family and supporters of two journalists believed to be detained in Syria appealed in Istanbul for their release. Arzu Kadoumi said her husband Bashar Fahmi, a reporter for Al-Hurra network, and his Turkish cameraman, Cuneyt Unal, had been missing for 53 days.
Inside Syria, battles continued in the southern Idlib province that abuts the Turkish border as rebels sought to consolidate control of a strategic town on the country's main north-south highway. Rebels said they captured Maaret al-Numan on Wednesday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes continued Thursday after rebels attacked a military convoy and nearby army checkpoints. The fighting killed more than a dozen people, the Observatory said.
The Observatory also said eight people were killed and another eight wounded when unknown gunmen fired on their bus near the coastal city of Tartous. Syria's state news agency SANA said the men were Syrian workers returning from Lebanon.
In the southern province of Daraa, gunmen shot dead the brother of a member of Syria's parliament while raiding his home, the Observatory and SANA said. The parliament member, Khalid al-Abboud, regularly defends the Syrian regime on TV.
The Observatory said gunmen also killed the son of another legislator, Mohammed Kheir al-Mashi, at his home in Idlib province.
Activist claims could not be independently verified because of restrictions on reporting in Syria.
Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria; Nataliya Vasilyeva and Max Seddon in Moscow; and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.