Damascus said that the Syria-bound commercial jet diverted to Ankara Wednesday night was not carrying prohibited cargo, and demanded Turkey return the goods it seized. The airline accused Ankara of brutality and illegal provocations.
In its comments on the interception, the Turkish Foreign Ministry alleged that the plane’s cargo contained elements “not legitimate in civilian flights.” Turkish media speculated that security forces had seized communication equipment, radio terminals and missile components.
But the Syrian Transport Ministry insists the cargo on the Syrian Air plane, which was flying from Moscow to Damascus, was within the regulations. The ministry accuses Turkey of piracy.
“The actions of the Turkish authorities are air piracy which violates civil aviation agreements,” said Transport Minister Mahmoud Ibrahim Said. “They have the cargo – but we still have the documents. If there’s anything wrong, as their officials insist, let them prove it.”
On Thursday, the Syrian Foreign Ministry demanded the cargo be returned “whole and safe,” and said there were “no weapons or prohibited cargo” on board.
Russian airport representatives also said that customs and security services did not find anything suspicious in the cargo before the 35-passenger plane was cleared for takeoff. All the relevant inspection documents were passed over to officials for investigation, the Vnukovo Airport press service said.
The civilian plane was diverted mid-flight by F-16 fighter jets, and was not allowed to leave the international airport in Ankara for around nine hours until Turkish officials finished inspecting the plane’s cargo.
Turkey said it was permitted under international law to intercept any planes which may threaten its security. Thursday, Ankara reportedly sent a diplomatic note to Syria, on grounds that the plane was carrying "certain equipment in breach of civil aviation rules."
The Turkish Foreign Ministry also remarked that the pilot of Syrian Air's Airbus A320 had been warned of Turkey's intention to ground it and was given the chance to turn back, but that he decided to continue his course.
Ghaida Abd Al-Latif, director of plane owners Syrian Air, argued that Turkey did not ask the aircraft pilots to land, and instead immediately dispatched fighter jets, putting passengers’ lives in danger.
“The Chicago Convention allows inspecting passenger planes,” Ghaida Abd Al-Latif said. “If the captain refuses to land, the country may send fighter jets. But in this case, the captain suddenly saw unidentified objects on radar. They proved to be Turkish fighter jets flying so close it could lead to disaster.”
The plane landed in territory belonging to the Turkish military, which seized “boxes and electronic equipment,” but refused to explain their actions, Al-Latif said. The crew demanded that the authorities issue a receipt for the cargo, citing international law.
“The Turks refused to issue the document, but the crew insisted. After that they turned aggressive hurting one of the crew and several passengers. And this all came on top of the stress everyone on board had been going through,” Al-Latif said.
Jasem Kaser, the engineer on that flight, said that the Turkish authorities found nothing suspicious after opening the plane’s cargo.
“[Turkish officials] still ordered us to go out and ordered to take the boxes out. I requested a receipt. They demanded we unload and they’ll give a receipt later,” Kaser said. “Then they aimed their guns at us, cuffed us, put in two cars and took to the ramp.”
Turkish officials also reportedly pressured the crew to sign a statement that called the detour an ‘emergency landing,’ which the crew refused to sign.
“We are filing protests to all international bodies including the International Civil Aviation Association and Arab Air Carriers Organization – as well as human rights bodies,” Syria’s Transport Ministry said in a statement. The ministry argued that the plane was detained in Ankara for far longer than was necessary to conduct an inspection.
Moscow roundly criticized Turkey over the incident, and for endangering the 17 Russians on board the flight. The Russian envoy to Turkey visited the country’s Foreign Ministry after Moscow demanded that Ankara explain why it failed to inform them of the presence of Russian nationals on the flight.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also demanded an explanation for why the passengers – including children and the elderly – were prohibited from leaving the plan for several hours, and were not provided food.
Tensions between Syria and Turkey have escalated after mortar shells were fired across the country’s shared border from Syrian territory last week, killed five civilians in a Turkish town. Turkey responded by deploying troops, armored vehicles and F-16 fighter jets along the volatile border
NATO sources said the Turkish forces were placed on high alert after Wednesday’s incident. This followed Ankara’s orders for the national airlines to avoid entering Syrian airspace.
Turkish media reported that Syria responded by barring Turkish aircraft from its airspace, a charge later denied by the Syrian Foreign Ministry.
Ankara, once an ally of Syria, has become an outspoken supporter of the 19-month-long uprising in Syria that seeks to topple the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Turkey hosts over 90,000 refugees from the Arab country, where according to the UN estimates more than 18,000 people have died in the unrest.