Turkey accuses Russia of directly arming Assad side


SYRIA’S CRISIS triggered new international tensions yesterday when Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayipp Erdogan, accused Russia of directly supplying munitions to Bashar al-Assad’s government, after Turkish jets intercepted an aircraft en route from Moscow to Damascus.

Russia had earlier flatly denied that the Syrian aircraft, which was forced to land in Ankara, was carrying any military equipment. But Mr Erdogan was quoted as saying: “This was equipment and ammunition that was being sent from a Russian agency ... to the Syrian defence ministry. Their examination is continuing and the necessary [action] will follow.” Mr Erdogan’s comments clearly implied he was accusing Moscow of lying.

In earlier, angry exchanges, Russia had accused the Turkish authorities of endangering Russian lives when the Syrian Air passenger flight was intercepted by F16 fighter jets on Wednesday evening.

Turkish media reports said cargo confiscated from the plane before it was allowed to leave Ankara included radios, antennae and equipment “thought to be missile parts”. Syria immediately condemned the Turkish action as piracy.

Turkey said previously that it had received an intelligence tip-off that the aircraft had illegal cargo on board. Mr Erdogan warned last year that Turkey would be willing to take measures to “stop and confiscate” any shipment of military supplies, by air or sea, to Syria in contravention of its own unilateral embargo.

The incident underlines sharp and growing disagreements over the crisis – the bloodiest of the Arab spring – which Syrian opposition activists say has cost 30,000 lives in the past 19 months. Turkey and Syria have traded artillery fire several times over their border in the past week.

Diplomats said Turkey was flexing its muscles after Russia refused to condemn Syria at the United Nations last week, when mortar shells fired by the Syrian army killed five civilians in a Turkish border village.

Birol Akgun of Ankara’s Institute of Strategic Thinking told Zaman newspaper: “This is a signal to both Syria and third parties such as Russia and Iran.”

Russia is Syria’s closest ally and has supplied it with weapons, as well as providing diplomatic and political cover on the UN security council. Turkey has called for President Assad to step down and has allowed limited supplies of weapons to be delivered to the Syrian rebels.

Syria protested that the Airbus passengers were in a “very bad psychological state”. One of them, a Syrian aviation official, alleged Turkish officials pointed guns at crew and handcuffed passengers.

“We had no cargo on that aeroplane,” Vyacheslav Davidenko, spokesman for Russia’s state arms export company Rosoboronexport, told Reuters. “We always deliver our weapons in full compliance with international norms. Sending weapons on a passenger aeroplane breaks about every law there is.”

Russian and Chinese objections mean there are no international arms sanctions in force against Syria. Moscow has made several unsuccessful attempts to deliver renovated helicopters. One shipment was sent back as it rounded the coast of Scotland in the summer.

President Assad sought to calm tensions with Ankara, describing Syria and Turkey as brothers in an interview published yesterday. He insisted Turkey had “no reason to go to war” over the cross-border clashes. – (Guardian service)