Russia's foreign minister said on Friday that a Moscow-Damascus passenger airliner forced to land in Turkey over suspicions it had weapons on board was legally carrying Russian radar parts.
Turkish F-16 fighter jets forced down the Syrian Air Airbus A320 some three hours after it had taken off from Moscow's Vnukovo international airport late on Wednesday. Turkey eventually permitted the A320 to resume its flight after a five-hour inspection of the aircraft that resulted in the seizure of a number of items.
"We have no secrets," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists after meeting President Vladimir Putin near Moscow. "There were, of course, no weapons on board and there could not have been."
Lavrov also stressed the delivery was "entirely legal" and that Russia would demand both the return of the equipment and an explanation from Turkey.
But he also said the "radar station equipment" was "dual purpose," meaning it could have both civilian and military applications.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday the intercepted plane was carrying Russian-made military gear and ammunition destined for the Syrian military, but Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the jet had no weapons or illegal items on board.
Moscow has repeatedly blocked international sanctions against the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over what it says is a pro-rebel bias. Tens of thousands of people have killed been since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in March 2011, according to opposition groups.
Russia has insisted that its ongoing arms deliveries to Syria are in accordance with international law.
Russia expressed a thinly veiled protest on Thursday at the grounding of the plane.
“We are concerned that the life and security of the passengers, including 17 Russian nationals, was endangered,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. He also said that Turkey had not informed Russia that its nationals were on board and that Russian embassy officials and doctors had been denied access to the plane.
“Russia insists on an explanation of such behavior with regard to the Russian nationals and demands that measures be taken to prevent any such incidents happening in the future,” he said.
The United States said that it supported Turkey’s decision to force the plane down and indicated it would raise the matter with Russia.
“We strongly support the government of Turkey’s decision to inspect the plane,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, adding that Washington was “concerned by any effort to supply military equipment to the Assad regime.”
The episode was likely to come up in bilateral discussions between US and Russian officials, she added.