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Syrian plane fuels tensions between Ankara, Damascus

(Xinhua)

15:33, October 13, 2012

ANKARA, Oct. 12 (Xinhua) -- The landing of a Syrian plane accused of carrying "ammunition" mounted tensions between Ankara and Damascus as Turkey scrambled Friday fighter jets after a Syrian helicopter approached its border.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday that the Syrian passenger plane, which was forced to land in Esenboga Airport in the Turkish capital of Ankara on Wednesday, was carrying Russian-made munitions destined for Syria's defense ministry.

He did not give further details, but Turkish media said the seized cargo included missile parts and military communication equipment such as radio receivers.

Syria, in response, accused Erdogan of "lying" and branded the incident as "air piracy."

Both Russia and Syria denied that anything illegal had been aboard the Airbus A320. Russia called the grounding of the Syrian plane "illegal," saying that it endangered the lives of Russian citizens aboard the plane.

In response to Russia's accusations, Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Russian Ambassador to Ankara Vladimir Ivanovsky on Thursday and clarified the incident.

A spokeswoman for Moscow's Vnukovo airport told state news agency Itar-Tass that the cargo on the plane had cleared customs and no prohibited items were on board.

Russia's arms export agency also said it had no cargo on the flight.

The plane was intercepted on its way from Moscow to Damascus and was held in Ankara for nine hours. Its cargo was seized for further examination, and later the aircraft continued its route to Syria. Turkey said it might announce the details of the cargo after examination "if found necessary."

Ankara on Thursday issued a diplomatic note to the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul over "violation of civil aviation rules" of the Syrian plane.

Two days after the incident, two Turkish military jets scrambled to the border with Syria on Friday after a Syrian military helicopter approached while bombing the Syrian border town of Azmarin.

Turkish-Syrian relations have been strained over the internal- conflict in Syria, in which activists estimate more than 32,000 people have been killed since March 2011, when the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's government began.

Turkey has called for al-Assad, once a close friend of the Turkish prime minister, to step down and imposed sanctions against the Syrian administration.

As Turkey hosted Syrian opposition, as well as nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees in its territory, Damascus accuses Turkey of supporting the rebels.

The two neighbors have traded artillery fire over Syria's northern border throughout last week, after which Turkey's top commander Necdet Ozel said Turkish troops would respond "stronger" if the shells continued to land on Turkish soil.

Turkish parliament last week authorized the deployment of troops into Syria, after a Syrian mortar bombs killed five Turkish nationals in the border town Akcakale.

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