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German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle will make an impromptu visit to fellow NATO member Turkey in an effort to tamp down rising tensions between Ankara and Damascus following Turkey's grounding of a Syrian passenger plane alleged to be loaded with ammunition for the Assad regime.
Mr. Westerwelle, who is currently in China, will meet his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, in Istanbul tomorrow to discuss the "escalating" situation between the neighbors, reports Agence France-Presse.
"The Syria situation has escalated. That fills us with the greatest concern," he said. "It is important that no one pours oil on the fire. We are counting on moderation and de-escalation."
Westerwelle said his visit was intended as a "sign of solidarity" with a NATO ally and condemned recent shelling of Turkey, calling it "unacceptable."
"It is important that no one succumb to provocation and that we continue working on a new democratic start in Syria," he said.
Westerwelle also said that he wants "to hear for myself what was behind the forced landing of the aircraft and the confiscation of goods from the plane in Turkey."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that the airliner, forced down two days ago by Turkish jets as it flew from Moscow to Damascus, was loaded with "equipment and ammunitions" for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a charge that Syria and Russia deny, reports the Associated Press.
"Equipment and ammunitions that were being sent from a Russian agency ... to the Syrian Defense Ministry," were confiscated from the jetliner, Erdogan told reporters in Ankara. "Their examination is continuing and the necessary (action) will follow." ...
"As you know, defense industry equipment or weapons, ammunitions ... cannot be carried on passenger planes," Erdogan said. "It is against international rules for such things to pass through our air space."
But Syria's foreign ministry accused Mr. Erdogan of "lies," the BBC reports. "The plane's cargo was documented in detail on the bill of lading and the plane did not carry any illegal material or any weapons," the ministry said. It also challenged him to prove his claims by "show[ing] the equipment and ammunition at least to his people."
Russia's state arms dealer says it had no connection to the flight. "We have no information available about the contents or ownership of any cargo," Rosoboronexport spokesperson Vyacheslav Davidenko told RIA Novosti. "All cargo transport operations by us involving military equipment are always made in accordance with international agreements and Russian law."
As Turkey, Syria, and Russia jockey over the grounding of the airliner, Turkey continues to build up its forces along the Syrian border. The Australian Associated Press reports that Turkey is transferring 60 more tanks to positions in the south, bringing its total in the region up to 250. It also is stationing an additional 15 jet fighters in the area.
Yesterday was the Assad regime's worst day of military losses in terms of personnel yesterday. Ninety-two soldiers were killed, according to tallies from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and reported by AFP. In addition, 61 rebels and 81 civilians died yesterday.
The organization adds that another 14 were killed in a rebel attack in Daraa today.