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Moscow (AFP) Oct 11, 2012
Tensions on Thursday flared between Turkey and Syria's top ally Russia after Ankara forced a Syrian passenger jet flying from Moscow to land on the grounds it carried Russian-supplied arms for Damascus.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the SyrianAir plane was carrying "equipment and ammunition" destined for the Syrian defence ministry that had apparently been provided by Russia's arms export agency.
Russia demanded an explanation, accusing the Turkish authorities of endangering the lives of passengers, while the Syrian regime furiously demanded that Turkey return the cargo it had seized at Ankara's Esenboga airport.
The incident risks not only inflaming tensions between Turkey and the Syrian government -- already at bitter odds -- but also hurting ties between Ankara and Moscow which have starkly differing views on the Syria conflict.
Erdogan added that the confiscated material -- which he said came from a Russian military supplier -- was still being meticulously studied by the Turkish authorities.
A source in the Russian arms export industry earlier vehemently denied claims that there had been a military cargo onboard the plane.
"Neither weapons nor any systems or assembly parts for military equipment were or could have been on board the passenger plane," the unidentified high-ranking source fold Interfax.
Turkey had scrambled two F-16 fighter jets to force down the SyrianAir Airbus A-320 after reportedly receiving intelligence it was carrying military cargo for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The plane, carrying 35 passengers, 17 of them Russian nationals, was held at the airport for nine hours before finally allowing it to resume its journey. But its suspicious cargo stayed in Ankara.
The Syrian foreign ministry said the government demanded "a complete and proper restitution of the contents of the plane". The interception of the plane was "hostile and reprehensible behaviour" on the part of Turkey, it added.
--- 'Lives put at risk' ---
Amid speculation among commentators of growing tensions between Russia and an increasingly assertive Turkey, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said Thursday that the Russian leader has postponed a visit to Turkey.
Erdogan said the visit would now take place on December 3, based on a phone conversation involving "diplomatic circles" that took place four days ago, but Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was just one of the possible dates being discussed.
The trip had been reportedly scheduled for October 15 although the first media reports of the postponement surfaced before the plane was intercepted on Wednesday.
Russia, a top ally of the Damascus regime and its biggest arms supplier, furiously complained that Ankara had put the lives of passengers at risk by forcing it to land in the Turkish capital.
"We are concerned that this emergency situation put at risk the lives and safety of passengers, who included 17 Russian citizens," said a statement by foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
"The Russian side continues to insist on an explanation of the reasons for such actions by the Turkish authorities," he added.
He said the Turkish authorities failed to inform the Russian embassy in Ankara that there are Russian citizens on board and Moscow found this out from the media.
The Russian passengers had to spend eight hours on the plane without food and were not permitted to go inside the airport, he added.
But the Turkish foreign ministry hit back, saying that there "was no basis for the concerns that the safety of the passengers and the plane might have been compromised."
The Turkish foreign ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu met the Russian ambassador to Ankara, informing him "about the Syrian violation of the civil aviation rules," an official said.
Ties between the one-time allies Syria and Turkey have soured dramatically over the conflict, particularly when a Turkish fighter jet was brought down by Syrian fire in June, killing two pilots.
Ties took another turn for the worse more than a week ago when a Syrian shell killed five Turkish civilians in a Turkish border town, prompting retaliatory fire from Turkey that has continued with further shelling from Syria.
But Russia has also infuriated Turkey and its Western allies by refusing to halt military cooperation with Syria, an ally dating back to Soviet times, despite the raging conflict in which activists say more than 32,000 people have died since March 2011.
Moscow has defiantly refused to take sides against Assad, who Erdogan has vehemently condemned, and has slammed the West and Turkey for making clear their support for the rebels battling his regime.
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