Turkish F-16 fighter jets forced a Syrian Air passenger plane to land in Ankara over suspicions that it was carrying “non-civilian” cargo. The Damascus-bound plane, en route from Moscow, has departed after a nine-hour inspection.
Ankara granted the Syrian plane a departure clearance, after Turkish security confiscated its suspicious cargo, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a local broadcaster.
The plane departed Esenboga airport in Turkey at 2:30am local time and, after its detour, arrived in Damascus an hour later at 12:30 GMT.
The passengers are all reportedly accounted for. None have commented on the incident since landing in Syria, and attempts to contact their cell phones were unsuccessful.
“Just because of the clear evidence that we received, we negotiated with our prime minister and decided to let the plane fly on to Syria with the passengers, but we are going to hold on to the material because of the ongoing investigation and the next steps,” he said. “Our investigation is continuing. Since there might be materials that were supposed to be declared but have not been, we are holding this material in our hands to continue to inspect.”
Although Davutoglu claimed that the plane and passengers were free to go, they had to spend several additional hours grounded as Turkish officials completed a “paperwork routine.” The plane’s crew and passengers told RT that the security units surrounding the plane were attempting to force the pilot and several of the crew to sign papers fraudulently describing the incident as an emergency landing. Some of those who refused were beaten, reports say.
The director of Syria’s civil aviation agency told RT that the interception of the civilian plane and the search of its cargo compartment were a breach of the Convention on International Civil Aviation.
Earlier, Davutoglu said that Ankara had received intelligence that the Syrian plane was carrying “certain equipment in breach of civil aviation rules,” but refused to comment on what that equipment might be.
The Turkish authorities were interested in some spare parts a businessman had purchased in Russia and was bringing to Syria, Fatima al-Saman, a passenger, told RT. She said that as far as she could tell, they were clearly not weapons.
“They started unloading some packages. They opened them, took pictures. There were many people. We all saw what was in there. There were no weapons. It was clear ever to the untrained eye!” she said.
Al-Saman added that the search involved only luggage, and the passengers were mainly ignored by the Turkish forces. Russian diplomats arrived at the airport but were reportedly not allowed to meet with the passengers.
Earlier, Turkish media speculated that the plane had been diverted on suspicions that it was transporting heavy weaponry. Later reports suggested that Turkey had seized military communications equipment and missile components. However, so far there have been no official confirmations of the contents of the cargo.
The Airbus A-320, carrying over 30 passengers, was forced to land in Ankara’s international airport at 5:15 pm local time (3:15 pm GMT).
The aircraft, which belongs to Syrian Air, was intercepted as it entered Turkish airspace on its way from Moscow by F-16 jets and forced to land at the capital’s Esenboga Airport.
Turkey is determined to stop any transfer of weapons to the Syrian government through its airspace, Davutoglu said Wednesday. The FM added that Turkey has every right under international law to investigate any civilian plane suspected to be carrying military equipment.
Meanwhile, Ankara has banned Turkish passenger flights from entering Syrian airspace.
“All civilian flights in Syrian airspace have been stopped, since it is no longer safe,” the ministry added in their Wednesday statement. A Turkish plane that had already taken off for Saudi Arabia made a detour and landed at the Adana airport, reports Today’s Zaman newspaper.