October 11, 2012


[Moscow’s complaints brought a quick riposte from Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag of Turkey, who was quoted by the semiofficial Anatolian News Agency as saying “materials that infringed international regulations” had been confiscated when Turkish officials searched the aircraft. ]
By Ellen Barry, Anne Barnard And Sebnem Arsu
Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press
A Syrian passenger plane that was forced by Turkish jets to land sat idle
 at Esenboga airport in Ankara early Thursday. More Photos »
MOSCOW — Adding to strains with Turkey over the conflict in Syria, Russia demanded on Thursday that Turkey explain why its warplanes forced a Syrian passenger plane flying from Moscow to Damascus to land in the Turkish capital, Ankara, on suspicion of carrying military cargo.
The episode on Wednesday also marked a sharp escalation of Turkey’s confrontation with Syria as the authorities in Ankara ordered Turkish civilian airplanes to avoid Syria’s airspace and warned of increasingly forceful responses if Syrian artillery gunners keep lobbing shells across the border.
On Thursday, Moscow expressed dismay at the Turkish action and denied that there were weapons or other military supplies on the plane, which was carrying some Russian passengers.
“I think that tension will now develop in the relationship between Russia and Turkey,” a Russian Foreign Ministry official said, accusing Turkish officials of breaking the law by searching the Syrian plane on the ground.
Moscow’s complaints brought a quick riposte from Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag of Turkey, who was quoted by the semiofficial Anatolian News Agency as saying “materials that infringed international regulations” had been confiscated when Turkish officials searched the aircraft.
Russia and Turkey are already at odds over the Syrian crisis, with Ankara joining Western and many Arab nations in support of insurgents seeking to overthrow the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, while Moscow has consistently shielded Mr. Assad, its main regional ally. Russia is Syria’s main arms supplier.
Russian authorities were “disturbed” that the Turkish side did not inform its embassy that Russian citizens were being held at the airport, and did not allow diplomats to speak to Russian passengers for an eight-hour period, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich, said in a written statement.
The passengers were not allowed to wait in the airport building, though they were occasionally allowed to leave the aircraft for the runway, and were not given food, the statement said.
An official from a Russian arms export company, moreover, told the Interfax news service that Russia has never suspended its military cooperation with Syria but would not ship arms supplies on a civilian passenger plane.
“There were not and could not have been any weapons, or systems, or military hardware equipment on board the passenger plane,” the official said. “If it had been necessary to ship any military hardware or weapons to Syria, this would have been done through the established procedure rather than in an illegal way.”
Despite their differences — and a cold-war history of animosity — Russia has been striving in recent months to build its relationship with Turkey, its second-largest trading partner and a key player in regional politics.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey visited Moscow in late July, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is scheduled to return the visit shortly. Some Russian analysts said that the two sides would step back from further confrontation over the forced landing.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said that though the two countries have assumed opposing positions in the Syrian crisis, Russian policy makers have accepted Turkey’s stance because they view it as driven by domestic considerations. Tens of thousands of refugees have crossed the Turkish border as violence in Syria mounted, fueling grievances among Turks about their government’s handling of the crisis.
“Now Turkey cannot be an outside observer and an outside force — it’s about Turkish stability,” Mr. Lukyanov said. The relationship could suffer, he said, “if the crisis will escalate and Turkey will be more and more in the middle of the Syrian struggle. But so far, they will find a face-saving way to preserve the relationship.”
In a separate radio interview, Mr. Lukashevich, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that, “until recently, there was the impression that the serious differences over Syria would not influence Russian-Turkish ties.”
“Now the situation has changed. This is linked to the fact that Turkey has become too deeply involved in Syrian domestic affairs,” he said.
He said Turkey’s decision to ground the airliner was “quite serious” because “without total certainty that there is something there, you are taking a great risk” by ordering it to land.
“Speaking forcefully, there was no legal basis, and Russia will obviously draw attention to this,” he told Kommersant FM radio, referring to Turkey’s search of the plane.
NTV television in Turkey said on Wednesday that two Turkish F-16 warplanes had been sent to intercept the Syrian Air jetliner, an Airbus A320 with 35 passengers, and had forced it to land at Esenboga Airport in Ankara, the capital, because it might have been carrying a weapons shipment to the Syrian government.
Inspectors confiscated what NTV described as parts of a missile and allowed the plane to resume its trip after several hours. The Turkish authorities declined to specify what had been found.
“There are items that are beyond the ones that are legitimate and required to be reported in civilian flights,” Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said in remarks reported by the Anatolian News Agency. “There are items that we would rate as troublesome.”
There was no immediate comment from Syria. Turkish transportation authorities said earlier in the day that all Turkish aircraft should avoid flying over Syrian territory, possibly in anticipation of retaliatory action by Syria.
The steps taken by Turkey on Wednesday added ominous new tensions to its troubled relationship with Syria, where a nearly 19-month-old uprising against Mr. Assad has evolved into a civil war and threatened to touch off a regional conflict.
Turkey is the host for main elements of the anti-Assad insurgency and for roughly 100,000 Syrian refugees, who have been fleeing in greater numbers as violence has increased along the 550-mile border in recent days. Several mortar rounds have landed on Turkish soil, prompting Turkish gunners to return fire.
News reports on Wednesday described intensified fighting close to Azamarin, a Syrian border settlement, with mortar and machine-gun fire clearly audible from the Turkish side. Wounded civilians, some in makeshift boats filled with women and children, could be seen crossing the narrow Orontes River, which demarcates part of the Syrian border with Hatay Province in Turkey.
The Turkish chief of staff, Gen. Necdet Ozel, who visited parts of the border area on Wednesday, was quoted by Turkish news media as saying that military responses to Syrian shelling would be “even stronger” if the shelling persisted.
The rising tensions between Turkey and Syria are seen as especially troublesome because Turkey is a member of NATO, which can deem an attack on one member an attack on all, and this implicitly raises the possibility that NATO will be drawn into a volatile Middle East conflict.
On Tuesday, the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, emphasized that NATO had “all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.”
The fighting in Syria has touched all other neighbors of the country as well, with fighting reported recently in villages near a border crossing to Lebanon in the west, while in the east, Syrian authorities have lost control of some crossing points on the border with Iraq. Tens of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon and Jordan, straining resources in those countries. Last month several mortar shells fired from Syria landed in the Golan Heights near Israel’s northern border.
Skirmishes have been reported between Syrian troops and Jordanians guarding their northern border, and Jordan is worried that the porous frontier could become a conduit for Islamic militants joining the anti-Assad struggle.
At the same time, Mr. Assad’s government appears to have hardened its position over the already remote possibility of a truce with the rebels. On Wednesday the government rejected a proposal made a day earlier by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, that Mr. Assad take the first step by declaring an immediate unilateral cease-fire, to be followed by a matching step from his armed opponents.
Jihad Makdissi, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, said in response that the insurgents must stop shooting first. In a statement reported by the official Syrian Arab News Agency, Mr. Makdissi said his government had told Mr. Ban he should send emissaries to the countries arming the insurgents, and urge them “to use their influence to stop the violence from the other side, then informing the Syrian side of the results.”
Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, Lebanon, Sebnem Arsu from Hatay, Turkey, and Ellen Barry from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell from Paris, Christine Hauser and Rick Gladstone from New York, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut.