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Syrian airliner forced to land in Turkey: Was is carrying missile parts?

Turkey says that the Syrian Air Airbus A320 en route from Moscow to Damascus was carrying military communications gear and missile components, a charge that Syria denies. 

By Frank JordansAssociated Press / October 11, 2012

People gather atop the aircraft steps at a Syrian passenger plane that was forced by Turkish jets to land at Esenboga airport in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP

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Istanbul

Turkey defended its decision to force a Syrian passenger plane to land, saying Thursday the aircraft was carrying illicit cargo from Russia that Turkish media said included military communications gear and missile parts.

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Syria branded the incident piracy and said there was nothing illegal on board. Syria's ally Russia also criticized Turkey, saying Ankara had endangered the lives of Russian citizens on board the aircraft.

In a statement Thursday, the Foreign Ministry in Ankara said the pilot of the Syrian Air Airbus A320, on a scheduled flight from Moscow, had been warned of Turkey's intention to ground it as he approached from the Black Sea on Wednesday evening. It said he was given the chance to turn back, but that he decided to continue his course.

Turkish-Syrian relations have plummeted over the conflict in Syria, with Turkey calling for President Bashar Assad to step down and Damascus accusing Turkey of supporting the rebels. The two neighbors have traded artillery fire over Syria's northern border throughout the past week.

Turkish officials have yet to provide details about what they confiscated. But Yeni Safak, a newspaper close to the Turkish government, reported Thursday there were 10 containers aboard the plane, whose contents included radio receivers, antennas and equipment "thought to be missile parts."

Turkish state-run television TRT also reported the plane was carrying military communications equipment. Neither TRT nor the newspaper cited sources for their claims

A western diplomat in Ankara told The Associated Press that Turkish authorities had found "military equipment" on board the plane, but did not elaborate. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about sensitive issues.

The plane was allowed to continue to Damascus after several hours, without the cargo.

Rejecting claims that passengers were ill-treated, the Turkish statement said they were allowed to leave the plane if they wanted and that there was a health crew and ambulances on standby. It also said that the pilot did not provide a passenger list and therefore Turkish officials did not know there were Russians on board until after it landed.

Separately, the Foreign Ministry said it had submitted a formal protest note to Syria for the violation of civil aviation rules and declared Syrian air space unsafe for Turkish planes.

Hours before the Turkish statement Russian Ambassador Vladimir Ivanovsky had held talks with Turkish officials at the Foreign Ministry.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich had said earlier Thursday that Moscow was concerned that lives and safety of the 35 passengers, including 17 Russian citizens, had been endangered.

He said Turkey without explanation denied Russian consular officials and a doctor access to the passengers, who had not been allowed into the airport for eight hours or provided with food.

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