MOSCOW â€”Â Turkeyâ€™s confrontation withÂ SyriaÂ spread on Thursday to includeÂ Russia, Syriaâ€™s principal military ally, when Turkeyâ€™s prime minister said Russian munitions intended for Syriaâ€™s government had been impounded from a Syrian commercial jetliner forced to land in Turkey.
Syria and Russia protested the interception and grounding of the jetliner. Turkish warplanes forced it to land on Wednesday on suspicion of transporting war matÃ©riel while en route from Moscow to Damascus with 35 passengers, including a number of Russians. Syria accused the Turks of assaulting the crew, denied that any illegal cargo had been aboard and demanded the return of whatever had been seized.
The developments aggravated the combustible atmosphere enveloping the conflict in Syria, where a 19-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has turned into a civil war that threatens to destabilize the Middle East. Turkey is a major backer of the insurgents trying to topple Mr. Assad and has hinted it may take military action against his forces because of the conflict, which has sent more than 100,000 Syrian refugees into Turkey. Russia is the major arms supplier to Mr. Assadâ€™s government.
Fighting between Syrian insurgents and Mr. Assadâ€™s forces convulsed northern Syria near the Turkish border, with unconfirmed reports that rebels had seized control of a strategic highway into the embattled city of Aleppo that the Syrian Army used to resupply its troops.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based antigovernment group with a network of contacts inside Syria, calculated that at least 87 soldiers were killed in fighting around the country on Thursday. If true, this would be the militaryâ€™s heaviest one-day casualty toll since the conflict began. It was impossible to verify the claim.
The assertion that the impounded Syrian jetliner carried Russian military cargo was made by Turkeyâ€™s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who declined to say how the Turks had come to suspect that the plane was carrying matÃ©riel or what precisely had been found. But he said the cargo violated international rules that prohibit passenger aircraft from carrying munitions.
â€œFrom Russia, an institution equivalent to our Machinery and Chemical Industry has sent military tools, equipment and ammunition to the Syrian Defense Ministry,â€ Mr. Erdogan was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Anatolian News Agency. He was drawing a comparison to Turkeyâ€™s Machinery and Chemical Industry Institution, a leading provider of defense equipment to the Turkish military.
â€œUpon the intelligence received, research there was conducted, and it was unfortunately seen that there was such equipment inside,â€ Mr. Erdogan said, referring to the search of the plane.
Mr. Erdogan also said a planned visit to Turkey by Russiaâ€™s president, Vladimir V. Putin, had been postponed, but that the delay had no connection with the forced grounding of the plane.
The prime minister spoke after Moscow expressed dismay at Turkeyâ€™s actions. A statement from Aleksandr K. Lukashevich, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that the forced landing had â€œthreatened the life and safetyâ€ of Russian citizens aboard and that Russia â€œcontinues to insist on an explanation of the reasons for these actions by the Turkish authorities.â€
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