Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Turkish jets force down Syrian airliner

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Turkey forced down a Syrian Airlines passenger aircraft on suspicion of transporting weapons from Russia to the Assad regime and said it had seized illicit cargo, as the already tense confrontation between Ankara and Damascus became still more grave.

The news on Wednesday that scrambled Turkish F-16 fighter jets had made the aircraft break its journey from Moscow to Damascus and land at Ankara airport came as Turkey threatened to step up its retaliation to a barrage of cross border shelling by Syria.

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Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish foreign minister, told Turkish state television that the aircraft, which was carrying about 30 passengers, was forced to land because of information that it may have carried “certain equipment in breach of civil aviation rules”. He added that Turkey was determined to stop “weapons transfers to a regime that brutally massacres civilians”.

A person knowledgeable about the search told the FT that equipment that could be considered arm parts had been discovered and seized. Reuters reported early Thursday that the aircraft had departed Ankara.

Some Turkish media reported that missile parts had been discovered on the aircraft and that several large crates had been removed.

It also emerged that Turkish government had forbidden Turkish flights from travelling in Syrian airspace, because of the risk involved and a possible Syrian response.

One aircraft carrying Turkish pilgrims to Saudi Arabia from Bursa airport landed at Adana airport in Turkey because of the new restriction.

The search for arms on the Syrian Airlines flight from Moscow could also increase tension between Turkey and Russia, its neighbour, which has backed the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while Ankara supports the Syrian rebels.

Turkish media reported earlier in the day that Vladimir Putin, Russian president, had postponed a trip to Turkey scheduled for next week – a trip Ankara had seen as an opportunity to try to persuade Moscow to dilute its support for Mr Assad.

Syria is not subject to a UN arms embargo – partly because of Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council of resolutions against the Assad regime. Nonetheless, Turkey has announced unilateral sanctions against any use of its land or airspace for the transport of weapons for the regime, although it is widely thought to allow arms shipments to the rebels.

Russia has rejected past allegations that is supplying Syria with offensive weaponry, rebuffing claims by Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, that it was providing Damascus with armed helicopters. However, it says it has provided Syria with anti-aircraft systems for legitimate reasons of defence.

The news about the Syrian jet came on a day in which Turkey threatened to step up its retaliation to cross-border attacks by Syria after six days – ending on Monday – in which Syrian shells landed in Turkey, with Ankara returning fire.

“If this continues we will respond with greater force,” said General Necdet Özel, the Turkish chief of staff, during a visit to Akçakale, a border town where five people were killed by a Syrian shell last week in the incident that triggered the retaliation

Turkey has already said that it if any more shells hit its territory the retaliation will be twice as great, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, questioning how the repeated shelling of Turkish territory can be merely the result of mistakes by Syrian armed forces.

“We have no intention of interfering in Syria’s internal affairs,” Mr Erdogan said in Istanbul before the news broke about the Syrian Airlines flight. “Our approach towards Syria does not depend on geopolitical balances; our only goal is to provide peace, comfort and stability in the region.”

The shells have hit Turkey amid fierce fighting for control of nearby border posts on the Syrian side of the frontier, with forces loyal to Mr Assad stepping up their attacks on rebel positions.

Opinion polls show that a majority of Turks both oppose war and disapprove of Mr Erdogan’s stance on Syria, which has seen him actively campaign against the Assad regime as Turkey becomes a hub for the political and military opposition as well as home to about 100,000 refugees.

But analysts say that in the event of another deadly shell attack the Turkish prime minister would have little option but to strike back harder. “You just can’t have another incident like those five people who were killed,” said Henri Barkey at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

He also emphasised, however, that opposition to war was deeply entrenched. “The image of Turks fighting in the Middle East is wholly contrary to the idea of the country as a paragon of stability,” he said.


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