Russia demands answers from Turkey over grounded Syrian plane

MOSCOW — Reuters

A Syrian passenger plane that was forced to land sits at Esenboga airport in Ankara on Oct. 10, 2012. (Cem Oksuz/Anadolu Agency/REUTERS)

Moscow on Thursday accused Ankara of endangering Russian lives after Turkish fighter jets intercepted a Syrian airplane on route from Moscow to Damascus which Russia’s arms exports agency said was not carrying any of its cargo.

Turkish military jets escorted the Damascus-bound Airbus A-320, carrying about 30 passengers from Moscow, into Ankara airport late on Wednesday after Turkey said it had received intelligence that the plane had military supplies onboard.

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Some of the cargo was seized in Turkey before the passenger jet was allowed to continue its trip. No details were given of what was taken off the plane.

“We had no cargo on that airplane. We always deliver our weapons in full compliance with international norms,” said Vyacheslav Davidenko, spokesman for Russia’s monopoly arms exporter Rosoboronexport.

“Sending weapons on a passenger airplane breaks about every law there is on weapons exports,” he said.

Russia has been one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest allies, blocking three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at piling pressure on him while selling his armed forces nearly $1 billion in arms last year.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it was demanding an explanation from Turkish authorities over the plane’s detention, saying Turkey had refused to grant Russian diplomatic staff access to 17 Russian citizens onboard during the eight hours that the flight was held up.

“The Russian side is insisting on an explanation of the reasons for such actions by the Turkish authorities,” the ministry said in a statement. It said that “the lives and safety of the passengers were placed under threat” by the incident.

The statement also said the Russian passengers were given no food and not allowed to enter the airport terminal but were only allowed to step off the plane and onto the tarmac occasionally.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official said it had received no query from Russia about the plane’s interception.

Yelena Kara-Sal, a top Russian consular official, said the cargo seized by the Turkish authorities was not of Russian origin, the Interfax news agency reported.

“Right now there is no discussion that the cargo is of Russian origin. The workers of the consulate will contact local authorities within a day for an explanation of the details,” said Kara-Sal.

An arms industry source said Moscow had not stopped its arms exports to Damascus, despite mixed signals from Russia about whether it has continued to supply Syria with weapons since the conflict between Assad’s forces and rebels has escalated.

“If we needed to send any kind of military-technical equipment or arms it would have been carried out properly and not through any illegal means, certainly not on a civilian aircraft,” the source said, according to Interfax.

President Vladimir Putin said in June that Russia does not send Syria weapons that could be used in a civil conflict.

A Russian-operated ship carrying ammunition was stopped and searched in Cyprus in January. The ship reached Syria with the cargo days after promising the destination would not be Syria but Turkey.