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Turkey closes airspace to Syrian civilian flights after similar move by Damascus

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Ankara has placed a ban on Syrian Airlines flying into Turkish airspace, after a diplomatic row that began when Turkey seized cargo from a Syrian civilian plane it forced to land in Ankara. Earlier, Damascus closed its airspace to Turkish airlines.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country had made the decision because the Syrian regime, which is battling an insurgency, was "abusing'' civilian flights by transporting military equipment.

Syria's foreign ministry has announced that the ban takes effect at midnight on Saturday, responding to Turkey’s threats of grounding Syrian civilian planes if military cargo is suspected to be onboard.

Turkey diverted the passenger, which was plane en route to Damascus from Moscow, on Wednesday as it entered Turkish airspace, forcing it to land in Ankara for a cargo inspection. After over nine hours on the tarmac, during which the passengers were not allowed to leave the plane, Turkish authorities confiscated some of the cargo. Before the plane was cleared to continue on to Syria, law enforcement agents abused passengers and crew, forcing them to sign papers stating that the incident was due to an emergency landing executed by the pilot, according to witness accounts.

Moscow harshly criticized Turkey for endangering the lives of the flight’s passengers by using F-16 fighter jets to force the plane to land, and demanded to know why Russian diplomats and doctors were not allowed to meet the 17 Russian nationals on board.

On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the plane was carrying legal radar parts, not munitions.

"We have no secrets," Lavrov told reporters. "There were, of course, no weapons on the plane and could not have been any. There was cargo on the plane that a legal Russian supplier was sending in a legal way to a legal customer."

The announcement came in response to a statement made by Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, alleging that the Syrian Air jet was transporting Russian-made weapons for use by the Syrian Defense Ministry.

“It is absolutely clear who sent the cargo and who was going to receive it. This was munitions from the Russian equivalent of our Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation being sent to the Syrian Defense Ministry," Erdogan said more than a day after the incident, without giving any exact details on the contents of the cargo.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry accused Turkey of “air-piracy” and demanded the cargo be returned “whole and safe.”

Tensions between Turkey and Damascus have been on the rise for reasons unrelated to the plane incident.

Following a cross-border shelling from Syrian territory last month that killed five Turks, Ankara has significantly bolstered its military presence at the border. In response to the incident Turkey has been shelling the Syrian Army's position for six consecutive days, while NATO promised to back Ankara in the escalating conflict. Around 250 tanks and 55 jets of various models have reportedly been placed along Turkey's volatile border with its Arab neighbor, with troops being put on high alert.

On Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that Turkey would retaliate “without hesitation” if the country’s border with Syria is violated again.

Meanwhile, fierce battles continue in Syria, including in the country's largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

State media report that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carried out operations that eliminated “large number of terrorists” and their equipment, including heavy guns and mortars.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, meanwhile, reports that a number of civilians were killed in the government shelling of heavily populated areas on Saturday.

An amateur video posted to YouTube on Saturday shows several gunmen standing near the remains of what is reported to be a Syrian Army plane hit by rebels in the countryside west of Aleppo.

However, neither report could be independently verified.

October 15 2012, 10:05

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