Armenian plane en route to Syria searched in Turkey

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 15, 2012 2:33 PM
Armenian plane en route to Syria searched in Turkey

By Gulsen Solaker and Ozge Ozbilgin

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey ordered an Armenian plane flying to the Syrian city of Aleppo to land and searched its cargo on Monday, Ankara's latest move to prevent its airspace being used to supply the Syrian military.

The plane was allowed to continue on its way after the search in the eastern Turkish city of Erzurum confirmed it was carrying humanitarian aid as stated by Armenian officials, a Turkish deputy prime minister said.

Turkey forced down a Syrian airliner that had come from Moscow on Wednesday, and said it had found Russian munitions on board destined for Syria's armed forces.

NATO-member Turkey has become increasingly assertive in challenging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the face of growing tensions along the border and banned all Syrian aircraft from its airspace in the wake of that incident.

"The plane was ordered to land and it was inspected. It was clear that the declaration was correct and the plane was given permission to take off," Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Turkey had the sovereign right under the Chicago convention on civil aviation to require planes crossing its airspace to make a "technical landing" but did not say whether this right would be exercised in future.

Armenia confirmed it had known the plane would be searched.

"The landing of the airplane in Turkey was planned and it was carried out according to a previously reached agreement. The airplane is delivering humanitarian aid to Syria," Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Tigran Balayan said.

Aleppo has a sizeable ethnic Armenian minority.

Last week's decision to force down and search the Syrian plane travelling from Russia infuriated Moscow and Damascus.

Russia has said there were no weapons on the plane and that it was carrying a legal cargo of radar equipment. But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later said the incident would not hurt the countries' "solid" relations.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan repeated on Monday Ankara's charge that the airliner was carrying military equipment. The packages seized from the plane bore the name KBP Instrument Design Bureau, a Russian weapons manufacturer, and the recipient was the Syrian Defence Ministry, he said.

"The material (being exchanged) between these two institutions, which is now in our hands, is definitely warfare material," Erdogan said. "There is no reason to contort this by calling it radar equipment or something else. In any case, radar material is used for the purpose of war."

He also downplayed Russian requests for information.

"Russia wants information from us. They don't need to ask us, they can just ask the respective bureau. It's clear from the consignment note," he told a news conference.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at the weekend that Turkish airspace had been closed to Syrian planes. Syria also banned Turkish planes from flying over its territory.

The confrontation between Turkey and Syria has escalated in the last two weeks because of cross-border shelling, with Ankara retaliating after five Turkish civilians were killed when a Syrian shell hit a Turkish border town.

The bloodshed inside Syria has worsened markedly in the past two months although neither government nor rebels have been able to gain a decisive advantage.

The increased conflict has fuelled further refugee flows across Syria's borders, with many fleeing to Turkey.

The Turkish disaster management agency (AFAD) said on Monday there were now 100,363 Syrians at more than a dozen camps.

Turkey has said it will struggle to accommodate more than 100,000 and has urged the United Nations to build refugee camps in a safe zone within Syria's borders.

(Additional reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan in Yerevan; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jon Hemming)