ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Escalating tensions with Russia, Turkey defended its forced landing of a Syrian passenger jet en route from Moscow to Damascus, saying Thursday it was carrying Russian ammunition and military equipment destined for the Syrian Defense Ministry.
Syria branded the incident piracy and Russia called the search illegal, saying it endangered the lives of Russian citizens aboard the plane.
The accusation by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan contradicted denials by both Russia and Syria that anything illegal had been aboard the Airbus A320 that was intercepted over Turkish airspace late Wednesday.
"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."
He did not provide details, but Turkish media said the seized cargo included missile parts as well as radio receivers, antennas and other military communications equipment.
"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."
Erdogan refused to say how — or from whom — Turkey had learned that the twice-weekly scheduled flight would be used to transport military gear to Syria.
"As you will appreciate, those who gave the tip, which establishments, these things cannot be disclosed," he said.
The United States said it backed Turkey's decision to intercept the plane.
"Any transfer of any military equipment to the Syrian regime at this time is very concerning, and we look forward to hearing more from the Turkish side when they get to the bottom of what they found," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
She declined to comment on Turkish reports that the intelligence on the plane's contents had come from the United States. The plane was allowed to continue to Damascus after several hours, without the cargo.
Turkish-Syrian relations have plummeted over the conflict in Syria, which has expanded into a civil war that threatens the stability of the Middle East. Syrian opposition activists estimate more than 32,000 people have been killed since March 2011, when the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began.
Turkey has called for Assad to step down, while Damascus accuses Turkey of supporting the rebels. The two neighbors have traded artillery fire over Syria's northern border throughout the past week.
Hours before Erdogan's statement, Russian Ambassador Vladimir Ivanovsky held talks with Turkish officials at the Foreign Ministry.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the Kremlin was concerned that the lives and safety of the 35 passengers, including 17 Russian citizens, had been endangered.
"The Russian side continues to insist on an explanation for the Turkish authorities' actions toward Russian citizens and on the adoption of measures to avoid such incidents in the future," Lukashevich said in a statement.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry said the pilot of the Syrian Air jetliner had been warned of Turkey's intention to ground it as he approached from the Black Sea and he was given the opportunity to turn back, but declined.
Rejecting claims that passengers were ill-treated, the ministry said those on board were allowed to leave the plane if they wanted and that there was a medical crew and ambulances on standby. It also said the pilot did not provide a passenger list and therefore Turkish officials did not know there were Russians on board until after the plane landed.