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A Syrian passenger jet, intercepted and detained in Turkey for several hours, was carrying Russian ammunition and military equipment - that news today from Turkey's prime minister. His comments came hours after Russia denied loading any military gear onto the civilian plane bound for Damascus. The incident is the latest sign of rising tensions between Turkey and Syria as fighting rages along their shared border. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Antakya near that border, and he has this report.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The passenger jet was forced to land at Ankara after being intercepted by Turkish F-16 fighter jets as it entered Turkish airspace. The plane, with some three dozen passengers and crew on board, was eventually allowed to continue to Damascus, but only after some of its cargo was seized by the Turks.
Initially, Turkish officials were circumspect about what exactly they had confiscated. But speaking today in Ankara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the plane was, in fact, carrying military equipment, including ammunition, from Russia to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through translator) This ammunition and equipment was sent from Russia to the Syrian Defense Ministry, and now this cargo is undergoing examination by the appropriate offices. The investigation is still going on. If it becomes necessary to specify in greater detail what the cargo is, we will do that at the appropriate time.
KENYON: An unconfirmed Turkish newspaper report said 10 containers were seized containing communications equipment and parts that could be used for missiles. The interception of the plane and the confiscation of gear drew angry protests from both Damascus, the plane's destination, and Moscow, its starting point.
A Syrian Cabinet minister called the incident air piracy that violates civilian air treaties. Russia demanded an explanation for what it called Turkey's move to endanger Russian passengers. Arms export sources in Moscow told Russian media that there was no military cargo whatsoever on board the flight. But Erdogan insisted that the real violation occurred when military equipment was placed on board a civilian passenger jet.
ERDOGAN: (Through translator) With passenger planes, in any case, you should never have defense industry material, ammunition or equipment. Nothing like that can be carried. To do this with a civilian passenger plane is wrong. It's against international agreements. Look, you can't even take pocket knives on these planes.
KENYON: The plane incident, coming on top of several days of cross-border mortar and artillery fire between Turkey and Syria, continues to fuel concern that the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime has the potential to spill over into a wider regional conflict.
The Turkish military's chief of staff visited the border area this week and warned that the next Syrian mortar that kills Turkish citizens will trigger what he called a harsher response.
Analysts worry that such incremental escalation can be hard to control, and diplomatic efforts to calm the situation have so far yielded little evident progress. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Antakya, southeastern Turkey.
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